The Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA) will open in just a few weeks, and if you're on the fence about whether to complete it, you might find that it's in your best interest to take the time and fill out the form.
That's the word from Kevin Walker, CEO of CollegeFinance.com, who recently surveyed over 1,000 students from the class of 2020 to determine how their financial packages worked out for them. The results indicate that nearly 40 percent of students said the economic conditions prompted by COVID-19 led them to struggle to pay for school because by the time it happened, grants and scholarships were hard to come by.
Question 1: Who should fill out the FAFSA? Should everyone do it or is there an income threshold where you'd tell a family not to bother?
Walker: Everyone should fill out the FAFSA. Don't necessarily assume that you won't qualify for financial aid. And also, keep in mind that if the student expects to borrow through federal student loans, the FAFSA is required, regardless of family income.
Question: Your data indicate that students who appealed for financial aid last year were occasionally successful in getting more money. Under what circumstances can a student appeal for more aid? Do they need a reason?
Walker: Students can appeal their financial aid award for any reason. Every college has a different methodology for how they award aid – and that methodology can change at any time, especially if circumstances (ahem, 2020) change unexpectedly for the student, their family or for the school. A college might find itself needing to bolster enrollment late in the calendar, and thus might be willing to negotiate a bit more to be assured of keeping a student enrolled.
Question 3: Families are often shocked to find that the financial aid package they receive falls short of what they feel they "need" to pay for college. What ways can families fill in the gaps if they don't have a college fund or scholarships to pay for the rest?
Walker: First of all, every family has the option to appeal the award they received. Ways to fill the gap also include more borrowing than anticipated (either by the student, the parent or both). But be very careful to keep an eye on what the total accumulated debt burden (and monthly payment) is likely to be after multiple years of school. There may also be ways to lower the cost of attendance by choosing a different housing or meal plan, including commuting from home.
Consider whether there are ways to accelerate completion. If it's possible to complete the degree in one or two fewer semesters, that could justify slightly increased borrowing – or taking more from savings – for each year of the now shorter program. And finally, there may be financial situations where it is wise to consider a different, less costly college.
Your best bet is to start planning out your financial situation now. Complete the net price calculators (NPCs) on college websites to get a feel for how much each school will cost you, and find out what your expected family contribution (EFC) is by using an online calculator. Once you have that information in hand, you can determine what your out-of-pocket cost is likely to be for each school, and you can prepare for which schools are most affordable. Families should have a conversation early in the college application process about what they can afford to pay so the student can create a college list around that.
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