Every March millions of people across the country focus on colleges, obsess over rankings, and struggle to select the big winner. Of course I’m talking about the college admission and financial aid process, also known as the other March Madness. High school students hoping to attend a traditional four year college or university should have submitted the admission application by now and are switching their focus to the next round of the college selection tournament – Financial Aid.
The Financial Aid process can be very intimidating for some families. The first step in this process is to breathe. The second step is to determine what each college requires in their financial aid application and when the application is due (it is also advisable to continue to breathe during this step). Most financial aid applications are due at some point in March. It is very important to adhere to the deadlines of each college you are interested in. Missing a deadline can reduce or remove eligibility for financial aid dollars. Different colleges may also have different application elements. All colleges and universities will ask you to complete the FAFSA – Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This application is used primarily to determine eligibility for federal need based aid. The FAFSA is available after January 1st at fafsa.ed.gov. Some schools may also ask students and families to submit additional applications to determine eligibility for institutional need based aid. In addition to these application forms, some colleges will ask you and your parents to submit tax documents, earning statements, and information about family assets.
Do it. And do it on time.
Whether you applied to 64 colleges or have narrowed your choices down to a final four one of the most crucial factors in picking a college is affordability. Getting in to the college of your dreams is a wonderfully exciting moment. But being able to enroll, attend, and persist to graduation is the ultimate goal. This goal will rely on your academic performance and your ability to pay the bill. Understanding and participating in the financial aid process for most students is crucial to college success.
As we head into April students and families will be evaluating the award letters and reviewing costs with the hope of determining which college is the right financial fit. Understanding and comparing costs is easy. Colleges post their expected costs on their websites for review. Evaluating worth is a much harder concept. One family may look at the bottom line at a college and think “it’s worth it” while another family looking at the same bottom line may not agree. It is important that students and parents are honest with each other about the realities of the finances as well as their perception of the education experience being offered. If the quality of the experience justifies the costs then the family may deem it worthwhile.
Students, please be involved. This is your education and it is important that you understand the commitment you and your family are making. In most cases this decision carries a large price tag. You and your family may be financing a portion of the expenses and therefore will be paying for this decision for years to come. It is important to understand the costs and benefits of attending so that you can be an informed consumer. Talk with your parents. Make sure they understand your desires to attend one school or another. Explore options with them. This is a decision that will profoundly effect both of you.
Parents, be open with your children. Include them in the aid process and be honest with them about your ability to help them pay for school. Together you will need to develop a good understanding of which school is worth the money and worthy of your child. It is important to spend this time trying to determine which school provides the best fit for your son or daughter.
Fit, affordability, worth, costs, and aid are all important things to consider during this aspect of the college admission process but honesty and open communication between all members of the family are the most important. Parents and students will need to understand each other before they can come together to make the decision. Use this time, as you wait for your financial aid award letter, to think about what is important to you. What do you hope to gain form this college experience? And how committed are you in making that decision real? The next stop is the May 1 commitment day. Be ready for it.
Coming Next – Understanding the financial aid award