Financial Aid Foibles

Dealing with college financial aid offices can be tricky. Sure, they lay out the welcome mat before you apply: “We meet full demonstrated need!” “Merit scholarships available!” And so forth. The trick for wide-eyed rookie applicants and their parents is knowing how to read between the lines and interpret what isn’t written on that welcome mat.

In cruising the college-info-related Web the other day, I came across a very interesting article that speaks to this very situation. Although a year old, its message still rings true: Beware what financial aid officers don’t say. That’s where reading between the lines comes in. As I’ve said many times here, the higher-education deck is always stacked in favor of the colleges. That’s where your poker playing skills can come in handy.

So, what exactly lies between the lines of all that welcome mat vebiage? Here are some highlights from David Weliver’s and Annamaria Androitis’ helpful SmartMoney.com article.

10 Things Financial Aid Offices Won’t Say

1. “You waited until April? Sorry, we gave your money away.”

… thanks to the down economy, competition for that money is expected to be tougher for the coming year. Don t miss out on aid because of confusing deadlines for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) …

2. “Your error, your problem.”

If you submit your FAFSA with errors, the central processor will send it to the prospective schools, which could have repercussions. One common mistake: Parents put their income and tax information in the student section or vice versa, which can’t be fixed by the machine scanning the form. The error might disqualify a student for financial aid …

4. “You’ll pay dearly for early decision.”

… If scoring financial aid is top priority, you’re better off not applying early and applying with the general applicant pool. That’s especially the case if your kid’s SAT scores and GPA are above the college median, and they excel in extracurricular activities. If such a student applies in the spring and gets admitted, they ll have a better shot at negotiating a strong financial aid package than if they d gone the early-decision route.

7. “We’ll let you borrow more than you can afford.”

Vickie Hampton, a professor of financial planning at Texas Tech University, knows that being well educated can make you poor. A colleague of hers, she says, racked up more than $100,000 in debt while earning a Ph.D. in English but ended up with a job where she couldn t use her degree. “There’s very little probability of her paying that off in her lifetime,” Hampton says. The predicament isn’t unique as more students take on excessive debt to finance degrees that lead to jobs in relatively low-paying fields. Unfortunately, college financial aid offices rarely discourage these decisions …

10. “Thought freshman year was expensive? Wait till senior year.”

… Nationwide, the average private college price tag jumped 4.4% for 2009-10 from the previous year with the average total cost for resident students at private colleges now just over $39,000. Assuming a steady 4% annual price increase and, say, $15,000 in aid each year, the $24,000 difference you paid on your student’s freshman year could grow to $29,000 by senior year …

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Those are just five excerpts from the 10 that are chronicled in the article. So, fair warning, then. Perhaps the most important lesson you can take from this article is a whiff of “insider” information that can help you be much more forthright and aggressive when financial aid awards come out. You can have your own kind of “You don’t say!” moment with the financial aid office.

You can register your thoughts on this crucial issue either here (below) or on the College Confidential discussion forum thread devoted to this article. In any event, when it comes to dealing with financial aid offices, many times what you don’t hear may be more important than what you do hear.

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