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.
- 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.
- 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/.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!