Essential Info About College Financial Aid Forms

With the sticker price of many private colleges exceeding $60,000 a year and the cost of public universities steadily rising, more and more families are struggling to fund their children’s college educations. If you think you will qualify for need-based financial aid, take the time to file the required financial aid forms. Even if you don’t think you will quality for need-based aid, it may be to your family’s advantage to apply anyway – you may be surprised that you do qualify! What if you have absolutely no idea about whether you might quality for financial aid? Then, before you do anything else, use one of the net price calculators listed under #2 below to get a very rough estimate of what you might expect.

To apply for need-based financial aid for college, families must complete one or two financial aid forms: the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA) and, sometimes, the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. October 1 is the first day these forms become available each year. These forms use your financial data from the “prior prior” year. In other words, for the 2020-2021 financial aid forms, families will use their 2018 financial and tax information.

All colleges require submission of the FAFSA for financial aid consideration. For current high school seniors expecting to attend college next year, the 2020-2021 FAFSA can be accessed and submitted at https://fafsa.ed.gov/ beginning October 1, 2019.

The FAFSA is an online application used by U.S. citizens and permanent residents to apply for financial aid from the U.S. federal and state governments. It is used by colleges and universities to distribute need-based financial aid. It is also used by many institutions to award scholarships and merit-based aid. It is important to complete the FAFSA even if you don’t think you will qualify for financial aid! International students are not eligible for the U.S. government aid programs. However, many schools will ask international students to submit a FAFSA so that they may use the data for assessing financial need. See eduPASS (http://www.edupass.org/finaid/fafsa.phtml) for more information.

About 250 of the more selective colleges and universities also require submission of the CSS Profile. This can be accessed and submitted at https://cssprofile.collegeboard.org/, also beginning October 1, 2019. This form is longer and more complex than the FAFSA. Both U.S. and international students may complete the CSS Profile.

The deadline to submit these forms varies from college to college and by application type (early decision, early action, or regular decision). It is necessary to check each college’s website or financial aid office to know the deadlines for each submission. Missing these deadlines can seriously affect your student’s eligibility for financial aid. A growing number of colleges now have a November 1 or November 15 financial aid deadline for Early Decision and Early Action applicants, along with a later deadline for Regular Decision applicants.

If your child is applying to college this fall and you think your family may require financial aid at any point during his or her undergraduate career (including if you expect to have two children in college at the same time), file the FAFSA and CSS Profile this year. Many colleges will not consider a financial aid application from a current student admitted as a full-pay freshman if they did not submit the FAFSA before they started college.

If you think your family will need financial assistance in order for your child to attend the college of his or her choice, there are things you should do now to prepare for the process of applying for financial aid.

  1. Start gathering and organizing your financial documents and tax information now. Use 2018 income and tax return information on the Net Price Calculators described below and to complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile in a timely manner.
  2. All colleges and universities are required to put a Net Price Calculator on their websites to help families calculate their estimated family contribution (EFC), given the specific costs of that institution. You can also find a general net price calculator on the College Board’s website at http://netpricecalculator.collegeboard.org/.
  3. Complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1. You can download instructions, worksheets and other information about completing the FAFSA at https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/resources#complete.
  4. Check to see if the institutions on your list require the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA. We recommend printing out the CSS Profile worksheet (accessible once you establish a CSS Profile account) and filling it in by hand, before transferring the data to the online application.
  5. If you think you will need assistance with FAFSA or CSS Profile preparation, contact a financial aid expert EARLY, preferably in the Fall and definitely not last minute! Because she has worked with many of our students’ families, we highly recommend Paula Bishop, a CPA and college financial aid advisor – www.paulabishop.com. If you would like to have the names of additional financial counselors to consider, please see our document on Financial Aid Consultants.
  6. Start exploring scholarship opportunities, both locally and nationally. These are sources of funding that are not administered by colleges but rather by other private organizations, each with its own application process and eligibility criteria. Families should not pay for any of these, nor pay anyone to search them out! Check out this website: http://www.college-scholarships.com/free-scholarship-searches/. However, before you spend lots of time applying for scholarships, check with the colleges on your list. Many schools will deduct your scholarships from your awarded financial aid package.
  7. For families who are not eligible for need-based financial aid but who will still struggle to finance the high costs of college attendance, consider applying to colleges that offer merit aid, in addition to financial aid (not all colleges do). When these colleges determines that a particular student would make a significant contribution to their campus community (because of the excellence of the student’s previous academic and/or extra-curricular activities), they may choose to ‘court’ that student by offering merit aid, or offering a deduction, sometimes graduated according to the student’s record.

This process can feel overwhelming….. But by starting the process now, getting organized, and having a frank discussion among your family about expectations and financial realities, you will be ready to complete all the relevant forms when the time comes. And, when you have completed the paperwork, reward yourselves for your accomplishment!

Protecting Your Family Against Digital and Identity Theft

My 24-year-old graduate-student son recently had a terrible experience that offers many lessons to college-aged students and their parents. As a nice, smart kid who typically thinks the best of people, he naively put himself into a situation (yes, he does admit he made a stupid choice) where his cell phone, credit cards and keys were stolen. The thief then managed to hack into his phone and into the banking app on his cell phone and drain his bank account!

As a parent 6,000 miles away, this was a nightmare scenario…. a son in a large city without access to cash, fear that his social security number might have been compromised, police who opted not to pursue this fraud case because they had more pressing issues, and a banking institution that refused to freeze his bank account after the theft and before the account was drained.

After many, many hours spent helping my son manage the results of the situation, we as a family have learned some big lessons about protecting family members against identity theft and digital theft in today’s world:

1. DO NOT share any login or password information by text or email…. ever! Do this over the phone.

2. Make sure a parent has every family member’s Apple ID login info, bank login info, and copies of current credit cards (in a secure place). That way, someone can lock phones and initiate freezes immediately in the event a family member is robbed or hacked, because time is of the essence.

3. Use a Password Manager. There are many programs out there, some with fees and some free, with a wide variety of features. The key is to choose one that works for you and use it consistently!

4. Make sure to keep anything with a social security number secure and NOT in your wallet (nor in a folder on your desk)! Take a look at what’s in your wallet and take out any credit cards, IDs or other things you don’t use regularly. And remember that your liability for a stolen debit card is greater than the liability for a stolen credit card, so report the theft or unauthorized use quickly.

5. Freeze the credit of all family members.  First, read this article: https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/finance/pros-and-cons-freezing-credit/. Then go through the process of freezing credit for all family members at Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, either by phone or online. In my son’s case, I found this to be a relatively easy process. Credit freezes have to be renewed every year. When you know your student or another family member is going to apply for credit (e.g., car loan, credit card, student loan), temporarily “unfreeze” the credit.

6. Read these articles about how to protect yourself from identity theft:

7. Be careful about what apps you keep open on your cell phone! And, use a thumbprint or cell phone passcode that is not something obvious, such as part of an address, a birthdate or phone number. In my son’s case, not only did they hack his banking app (which was password-protected) but they also used his Uber app to order up a bunch of food for delivery.

8. Here are some articles about ways to protect your privacy online:

Parents, if you have a student heading to (or back to) college next month, now is the time to have a candid discussion about safety, online privacy, digital theft and identify theft.

Announcing Karen Wehr, New College Goals’ Counselor

COLLEGE GOALS is pleased and proud to announce that Karen Wehr has joined our team of dedicated higher education counselors and is already accepting students and families into her counseling practice.

Karen brings with her seven years of admission counseling experience at Brown University, where she worked in the Alumni College Advising program, which has now closed. While at Brown, she also served as an Academic Advisor to Freshmen students.  Prior to her years at Brown, Karen served as Director of Admission at The Williams School in Connecticut, so she offers our families a wealth of experience from both sides of the college search and application process.

Karen resides in Rhode Island, but she will continue to work with students from all over the country and the globe, as she has done at Brown.  She is a member of NACAC (the National Assoc. for College Admission Counseling) and she holds a Masters in Higher Education Administration from Northwestern University.

WELCOME to the team, Karen!  You’ll make us even stronger and more dynamic!

High School Course Selection

From the Desk of Andrea van Niekerk, College Admission Counselor…..

As an admission officer at a very selective college, perhaps the most common question I had to field was this: “Will colleges care more about my grades or about the rigor of my course load?” At colleges such as Brown, with ludicrously low admit rates, the answer was easy – they care about both.

At this time of year when you might have to choose your courses for the next year, that answer can feel painfully inadequate. It seems to suggest that every student who does not attain rigor and performance in equal measure must not work hard enough. Its glibness does not account for the student with a huge curriculum of Mathematics courses struggling with the more interpretative nuance of a History class.  Or for the one who revels in the beauty of an English poetry class, yet wrestles with limited success in a Spanish language class.

Unfortunately, “selective” means that admission officers will have many more accomplished students to choose from in their applicant pool than they will have space for. So of course they will want to rely on every reasonably objective measure of academic achievement and preparation to sort between countless very deserving students, such as grades and courses. That means looking at whether a student chose AP Calculus or Statistics; AP Biology instead of Anatomy; APUSH instead of a semester on International Relations. And once they have sorted out the strongest academic candidates, they can move on to those more subjective means of evaluation, such as activities and essays.

Remember that if you are applying to very selective colleges, not just the Dartmouths and Dukes but also those with admit rates below 20 or 25%, the applicant pool does not resemble your high school class with its broad range of kids – from the classmate with the average record to the kid whose parents pray he gets into any college! Instead the applicant pool that you have chosen to be in is mostly full of those kids who think, given their scores, grades and courses, that they have a shot at that low admit rate! So if you hope to be a strong candidate in such an applicant pool, don’t choose your courses based simply on your school’s graduation requirement, an easy A, or even an overly narrow academic focus. Keep in mind the choices of others who will be applying alongside you to those very selective liberal arts colleges whose mission, after all, is to encourage breadth of education.

This is not meant to be an unpleasantly competitive exercise, just a realistic reminder that selective admission is comparative. If you decide not to do a rigorous math course because you don’t much care for Mathematics, or drop your foreign language because it is not required for graduation, or avoid a History class because last year’s bored you, then you are making choices that have consequences.

Moreover, I believe that liberal arts colleges are right to care – a lot! – about your courses in high school.  Unless you are attending a vocational training school for students who will opt for jobs rather than college after graduation, you should be investing in a broad program of learning. Don’t limit yourself to the things you like, think you are good at, or even just to the teachers you admire. In reality, you do not know yet what it is that you need to know. You do not know yet whether, as a History major in college, you will need the quantitative and computing skills that many modern historians now call on in their research.  You do not know yet whether, as a Computer Science major interested in solving important problems, you will need knowledge of human behavior and history, of political systems or economic reasoning, to find the solutions you will be looking for.

So what does this mean, or not mean, as you make decisions about your courses for next year?

  • Work hard to do well – hard work can be stressful, but that does not make it unhealthy!
  • Take on the most challenging curriculum in which you, by dint of such hard work and dedication, can do well.
  • But if you know, from a brutally honest self-assessment, that you are going to achieve a bad grade in a very challenging class in spite of dedicated work, then know that it is not the right course for you. This is about learning, not about martyrdom for the sake of AP overload!
  • Do not sacrifice your physical and mental health in pursuit of admission to a status college – it is so not worth it.
  • And set aside your assumptions about what you might do in college, and aspire to the broadest education you can in high school. Your college major is when you specialize, not high school!

College Goals Presentations in London and Paris – March 2019

It’s that time of year again! College Goals’ university admission counsellor Andrea van Niekerk will travel to London and Paris in March to offer presentations about the American university admission process, with special attention to how to develop a strong US university application.

Given the demands of the American university application process, students interested in pursuing higher education in the US are well advised to begin preparing early in their high school career, even before completing GCSEs or before the final two years of study toward the French bac or IB. What do families need to know for their students to be successful and satisfied by the university search and application process? How do students produce a strong and interesting US university application? We will address questions about applications to colleges and universities in the US, UK, and Canada.

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Andrea van Niekerk served for a decade as Associate Director of Admission, with a focus on international applicants, and as Freshman Academic Adviser at Brown University, and as Residential Fellow in a dorm at Stanford. Still based in Silicon Valley, she now works with both American and international families as part of College Goals. Andrea has had 20 years of experience in college admission and academic advising. She is a member of NACAC, HECA and WACAC.

Given how late international students frequently approach the American application process, we particularly urge families with students in Years 10 or 11, Troisième or Seconde, or Grades 9 or 10 to attend one of these sessions and to begin thoughtful and informed consideration of their higher education options now, prior to when their student starts A-Levels, Pre-Us, French BAC or IB coursework.

Sophomores: PSAT, Pre-ACT and Subject Tests

Sophomores —

Fall is time for you to test the waters of standardized testing. Many of you have just taken the PSAT and/or Pre-ACT at school. I hope you treated this as an opportunity and not something to dread. It has given you your first “feel” of the standardized testing that may influence your college admission options. You may come away with a preference between the SAT and ACT formats; one test may feel easier than the other. Compare the scores you receive on each. If your school does not offer the chance to take both testing formats, ask your guidance counselor if he or she would consider administering the other test to interested students.

Use your PSAT/Pre-ACT performance to help you choose whether to take the SAT or ACT as your official standardized exam. The PSAT and Pre-ACT score reports will also help you determine the areas in which you’ll need to improve for the SAT and ACT.

https://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/college-admissions-playbook/articles/2017-02-27/use-your-preact-psat-performance-to-choose-a-college-entrance-exam

The end of your first quarter of school is also a good time to think about the courses you are taking and, if any are subjects you excel in, whether you should take that SAT Subject Test in May or June of your sophomore year, while the material is still fresh in your mind. If you take any Honors or AP classes during your sophomore year, for example, then you’ll want to take the Subject Tests in those areas right away.

Should you decide to take a Subject Test at the end of your sophomore year, be sure to prepare for it. In addition to your in-school studies in each subject, you should definitely order a dedicated commercial prep book for each SAT subject you will test in and work through each book. Our students have reported good results from using Barrons, The Princeton Review, Peterson’s and other commercial ‘cram’ books. Read user reviews to decide which prep book is best for you. Each prep book includes several full practice tests.

Beginning to think about standardized testing during your sophomore year will reduce your stress levels during junior year, when “it really matters!”

Going Off to College

With no test preparation, college applications or school schedules to worry about, the summer after senior year is a wonderful moment of liberation! Thinking about the adventure ahead fills students – and their parents – with excitement and joy, but also more than a twinge of anxiety! What follows, therefore, are a few pointers to help smooth your way to college:

  • You need not take your whole bedroom with you to campus! Frankly, most college rooms lack space for multiple appliances and game systems, so check with your future roommate about who will bring what. Assess what you need after you arrive, and remember that when you go home for the holidays, you can always return with that special pillow your mom made you and your online game console.
  • Begin to plan your pathway through your education by knowing when you have to declare a major, what your distribution and concentration requirements are, and when these classes are offered. But don’t let your planning close you off to new possibilities – after all, college is about expanding your intellectual horizons and your academic skills. Explore the course catalog to get a taste of what those possibilities may be.
  • Attend the first class of every course you consider taking, even during any “shopping” period. Professors hand out material, set out their expectations, and may even start teaching, and you do not want to miss it.
  • Attend class even when you don’t feel like it because you stayed out late the night before or the weather is cold and your bed comfortable. Professors will cover material, explain concepts and sketch the bigger picture in ways textbooks won’t.
  • Resist procrastination and, instead, design a study and work schedule. Stick to it! College success comes mostly through a combination of hard work and organization.
  • You may have the time to purchase required textbooks more cheaply online, but make sure you have them when needed for assignments. Buy the edition the reading list specifies.
  • Commit yourself to getting to know at least one of your professors each semester. Your intellectual experience at college comes in part from talking about ideas with others who share the same interests, and that includes both fellow students and teachers. Professors are also invaluable later if you need a letter of recommendation or information about research and internship opportunities. Other residential and academic advisers are equally important resources.
  • Living successfully with a new roommate requires mastering the art of diplomacy and compromise, especially for students who have never had to share their bedroom before. Make use of your residential advisers, and work actively to become part of your dorm community. Avoid the temptation to stick only with the people you knew before you arrived, or those with whom you share a hometown or a language or a religion.
  • Get to know the campus and all the resources it has to offer – libraries, music performances, visiting speakers, sports facilities, and Career, Disability and Study Abroad counselors. Resist the freshman temptation to stick only to the safe bubble of campus – after all, when you chose your college, you also chose your environment. If you are on new terrain, use common sense and at first explore in the company of friends, but don’t let unfamiliarity deprive you of the pleasures your new home has to offer. Get to know the local public transport system – being able to get around a city cheaply and easily is very freeing!
  • Take responsibility for managing your money and your day-to-day life. Learn to do your laundry before you leave home. Open a bank account, manage a monthly budget, and learn to deal with the Accounts and the Financial Aid Offices. And find yourself a job! At most colleges you need not be on financial aid to get a campus job, and these are wonderful opportunities for earning extra money, adding to resumes, and extending your knowledge of your college.
  • Be kind to your parents as both their child and an adult. If you have a problem, they may not know the context well enough to judge whether this is a genuine crisis that requires intervention, or whether you just had a bad day. They will always be ready to support you, so help them make that judgment.

One of the many great joys of university life is that you get to occupy, for an extended period, a lovely space between being an empowered adult and a dependent child. This is a great privilege, but not an excuse for idling in a state of perpetual childhood! Use your privilege and your freedom well. Have fun but be sensible; enjoy the freedom but grow up; and revel in your freedom but phone home!

Planning Your Summer with College in Mind

Are you a high school student (or the parent of one) who is wondering how best to spend your summer? What do colleges expect high school students to do during their school holidays? While summer is a great time to relax and recharge, it’s also an excellent opportunity for teenagers to show commitment, responsibility, passion, leadership and reflection – all characteristics that can really boost your chance of getting into a good college!

Summer Job
Having a summer job is a great way to get work experience and demonstrate commitment and responsibility. Colleges understand financial realities and are impressed by students who work, especially if they are saving money for college or helping to pay some of their own bills. According to an article by Jenny Anderson in Quartz magazine (6-19-16), “Any way you turn it, holding a job is one of the most important things an adolescent can do…. They have to get up in the morning, manage their time and money, pay taxes, and be responsible to a schedule that neither kid nor parent designed.”

See: Quartz “Teens should have summer jobs, the less glamorous the better
(June 19, 2016)

Internship
Like a job, internships involve working for a company or organization, preferably one related to your career interests; but, unlike a job, they are often unpaid. Internships provide an opportunity to ‘test the waters’ and see if you really are interested in that career path. They also help students develop strong teamwork skills balanced with individual responsibility, build specific job skills, and network with people in their field of interest.

See: PrepScholar “Complete Guide to Internships for High School Students
(December 4, 2015)

Volunteer Work
Volunteering is when you do unpaid work that benefits others. Ideally, you are doing work that you enjoy, that supports a cause you care about, and that allows you to explore a career interest. There are many places where you can volunteer locally, such as libraries, animal shelters, schools, community theatres, food pantries, or other local non-profits. My daughter, for example, volunteered at the Emergency Room of our local hospital, as a way to explore her interest in medicine. If you’re passionate about national or local politics, or environmental issues, get involved! Work for a candidate whose values best meet yours, learn about the issues that matter to you, to your community… read, write and talk about them.

See: OnlineSchools.org’s “Student Volunteering Guide

See: PrepScholar “The 9 Best Places to Do Community Service” (September 21, 2015)

Summer Classes
Summer classes can be taken in a variety of ways, either through your high school, at a community college, through an academic program at a college, or even online. Take a course in something that really interests you, but is not offered in your school, or community. Did you know that you can take online courses from Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, the U of Texas and other great institutions online, for FREE, through www.edX.org? And there are many other similar options through other institutions, including and beyond www.khanacademy.org. If you need to stay on track with high school courses in order to prepare for college, see what’s available in summer school or at your local community college. If you are interested in pursuing theater, dance or visual arts, see what kinds of workshops are available both locally or as a residential program elsewhere. There are also many ‘pay to play’ opportunities on college campuses, where you study interesting subjects with students from around the world, while living on a college campus. While doing such a program will not improve your chances of admission at that college, it is a great opportunity to explore subjects not available at your high school, meet new people, demonstrate leadership, explore the college experience and expand the horizons of your world!

See: Forbes “College Summer Programs for High Schoolers: Are They Worth It?
(July 1, 2015)

See: Fastweb! Summer Programs for High School Students (March 1, 2016)

Pursue Hobbies or Talents
Summer is the time to pursue hobbies and talents, informally or formally. Perhaps you want to cook your way through one of Julia Child’s legendary cookbooks! It could result in a great college application essay! Are you an athletic, hoping to pursue your sport in college? Summer is an opportunity to focus intensively on your sport, by training or attending camps. Maybe you love to sit around playing guitar, writing your own songs, singing… great! Work on them, polish them, record them, maybe even YouTube them!

See: Psychology Today “Six Reasons to Get a Hobby” (September 15, 2015)

Your summer activities are more important than you imagine… NOT because you can rack up an impressive list to report on your college applications of the activities you attended, participated in, witnessed or accomplished. More important is that you are exploring the things that really mean something to you, and you’re investing your energy in excelling in them! With many opportunities available, choose ones that interest you and will communicate your passion to colleges. Colleges want to see that you committed to activities that are meaningful to you, in which you displayed responsibility and leadership, and where you both affected and were affected by the people and community around you.

See: Huffington Post’s “What College Admissions Office Look for in Extracurricular Activities” (April 11, 2013)

And don’t forget – bagging groceries, flipping burgers, doing construction work or restoring trails will be at least as respected by admission officers as attending a 2-week campus-based program.

Finally, remember that summers are probably the best time for you and your family to make the effort to visit a range of campuses, so you don’t waste time or money applying to colleges where you won’t be happy. Do NOT leave campus visits until after you get admitted… visiting campuses demonstrates your interest in each college, and that effort can significantly affect the outcome of your application.

Don’t wait! Summer opportunities need to be lined up NOW!

Is Early Decision Right For You?

Early applications were initially intended to help students signal their commitment to their top choice school. Over time though, the early application system began to reproduce all the stresses and strains of regular decision, only earlier and for an extended application period.  Now there are a variety of early application choices: Early Action (open choice and single choice), Early Decision, and second round Early Decision applications. Early Decision and Early Action application deadlines are usually in November, and students are typically notified of the admission decision in December.  Each early application option offers pros and cons.

This blog focuses on Early Decision (ED) applications.  An ED application is a binding commitment to one school. If accepted, you will be expected to attend, and thus you must withdraw any other applications.

Applying early can be an effective admissions strategy for many students. It is most appropriate for a student who:

  • Has researched colleges extensively
  • Is absolutely sure that the college is their first choice
  • Has found a college that is a strong match academically, socially and geographically
  • Meets or exceeds the admission profile for the college with respect to standardized test scores, GPA and class rank
  • Has an academic record that has been solid over time

Early Decision may be less appropriate for students who will absolutely need financial aid to attend college and will benefit from comparing financial aid offers from other colleges, unless your first choice college is one of the colleges that pledges to meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need.  (See: http://www.thecollegesolution.com/schools-that-meet-100-of-financial-need-2/.)

More and more, colleges are accepting an increasing proportion of their incoming freshman class through Early Decision (ED) applications.  Click here (https://ogontz.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/2016-early-decision-vs-regular-decision-acceptance-rates-chart-8-21-16.pdf) for a document that compares ED acceptance rates to Regular Decision (RD) acceptance rates for over 200 American colleges and universities. The document also gives the percentage of each institution’s freshman class filled through ED.  You will note that many prominent colleges fill 1/3 to 1/2 or even more with ED applicants, which significantly reduces the number of spaces available for the much larger pool of students who apply Regular Decision.

It’s important to reiterate that you should apply early only if you are as ready to present your credentials to the college in October or November as you would be later in the fall. If you want to re-take the SAT or ACT you didn’t do so well on, or get your History grade up, you might want to forgo applying early in order to buy yourself some more time for improvement until the regular admissions deadline.

If you plan on applying early, you need to start all facets of your admissions process early. Make sure you have lined up your recommendations and completed all required testing before the deadlines. Be ready to present yourself as a solid candidate. Above all, make sure you indeed want to attend the school to which you are applying early.

For more information about Early Decision, see:

http://blog.prepscholar.com/what-is-early-decision-should-you-do-it

http://www.thecollegesolution.com/applying-to-college-early-decision/

By Carolyn Stewart

Start Your College Financial Aid Process NOW

As you are excitedly exploring college websites and imagining yourselves as incoming freshmen next year on the campuses of your choice, many of you (and your parents!) are probably also concerned about the rising cost of college attendance.

There are two options that can help families in facing the cost of college – merit scholarship aid and need-based financial aid. Students/families should consider applying for both. Merit scholarships are awarded to students based on their talents and not on financial need. These talents may include athletics, academics, musical skills or commitment to service. Merit-based money is a measure of how much a college would like a student to attend and is unaffected by the wealth or the need of the student’s family. Many of the most selective private colleges, however, do not award any merit-based aid. Need-based aid is based on a calculation of a family’s demonstrated need. In other words, the cost of attending a college minus the estimated contribution a family can make to cover that cost (EFC) = demonstrated need.

If you think you will need financial assistance in order to attend the college of your choice, there are things you and your parents should do now to prepare for the process of applying for financial aid.

  1. Start gathering and organizing your financial documents and tax information now. Beginning in 2016 for aid applications for the 2017-2018 award year, families will use the prior prior year (PPY) income and tax return information. This is great news, since most families should have their 2015 tax returns already submitted. Use this 2015 income and tax return information on the Net Price Calculators described below and to complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile in a timely manner.
  1. All colleges and universities are required to put a Net Price Calculator on their websites to help families calculate their estimated family contribution (EFC), given the specific costs of that institution. You can also find a general net price calculator on the College Board’s website at http://netpricecalculator.collegeboard.org/.
  1. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the online application used by U.S. citizens and permanent residents to apply for financial aid from the U.S. federal and state governments. It is used by colleges and universities to distribute need-based financial aid. It is also used by many institutions to award scholarships and merit-based aid. It is important to complete the FAFSA even if you don’t think you will qualify for financial aid! 

    International students are not eligible for the U.S. government aid programs. However, many schools will ask international students to submit a FAFSA so that they may use the data for assessing financial need. See eduPASS (http://www.edupass.org/finaid/fafsa.phtml) for more information.Beginning in 2016, the FAFSA will be available starting October 1. Complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1. You can download instructions, worksheets and other information about completing the FAFSA at https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/resources#complete. The switch to PPY data will allow most American families to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool within the FAFSA, thereby simplifying the application process. Information from the parents’ PPY tax return (normally already submitted to the IRS – 2015 return in this case) would be downloaded and automatically populate the FAFSA. If your student is applying Early Decision (ED), you will likely need to submit the FAFSA at the same time or shortly after the ED application has been submitted. Check each college’s website for deadlines.

  1. Check to see if the institutions on your list require the CSS Profile, in addition to the FAFSA. There are about 200 colleges (mostly highly-selective private colleges) that use this form, which is longer and more complex than the FAFSA. Both U.S. and international students may complete the CSS Profile. We recommend printing out the CSS Profile worksheet (accessible once you establish a CSS Profile account) and filling it in by hand, before transferring the data to the online application. The CSS Profile is also available starting October 1 and will use PPY income and tax information like the FAFSA. If your student is applying Early Decision (ED) to one of the institutions requiring the CSS Profile, you will likely need to submit the CSS Profile at the same time or shortly after the ED application has been submitted. Check each college’s website for deadlines.
  1. If you think you will need assistance with FAFSA or CSS Profile preparation, contact a financial aid expert EARLY, preferably in the Fall and definitely not last minute!
  1. Start exploring scholarship opportunities, both locally and nationally. These are sources of funding that are not administered by colleges but rather by other private organizations, each with its own application process and eligibility criteria. Families should not pay for any of these, nor pay anyone to search them out! Check out this website: http://www.college-scholarships.com/free-scholarship-searches/. Before you spend lots of time applying for scholarships, check with the colleges on your list. Many schools will deduct your scholarships from your awarded financial aid package.

This process can feel overwhelming….. I know, because I have completed the process for both my children! But by starting the process now, getting organized, and having a frank discussion with your family about expectations and financial realities, you will be ready to complete all the relevant forms when the time comes. And, when you have completed the paperwork, reward yourself for your accomplishment!

Written by Carolyn Stewart, Director of Communications