One of the most exciting parts of the college admissions process is getting accepted, but if you discover that your financial aid package is not what you expected, you might face stress. By employing a few simple strategies, you can more easily determine how to handle this situation.
"During the admission planning and application process, my hope is that families have created a 'college affordability budget' that will help guide the student in making decisions on which colleges were worthy of applying to — academically, socially and financial," says Sonja Montiel, founder of College Confidence Academy. "As a result, when those financial aid packages arrive, students will know exactly how they will impact the financial well-being of their families by knowing precisely how short packages are. This will empower students as they explore options — still, the world of financial aid is never certain."
If your financial aid package is lower than expected, consider these tips to try to improve the situation or consider other options:
One reason a financial package may be short is that perhaps a family's financial circumstances have changed. Questions families should ask themselves: Has anything changed in the student's life since they applied for financial aid? Did either of their parents lose a job or experience a change of income? Are there additional people in the household? Did a parent pass away?
"If so, the student can reach out to the financial aid office and let them know about this. The college likely has a 'Change of Circumstance' form that they can fill out proving the change of income or household. Especially since the FAFSA uses prior-year income information and now opens in October, it's possible that something has changed since filing out tax documents or by the time the student filed the FAFSA," notes Risa Dubrow, cofounder of Grad Team Collective.
Students should always compare financial aid packages, but it is especially important if financial aid is coming up short.
"If a student has financial aid packages from similar colleges (especially ones with similar admissibility, similar percentage of need met, and both give out institutional aid), they can try appealing to the college that gave them less money," advises Dubrow. "I'd recommend that they reach out to the financial aid office and ask for more money -- I've seen this tactic work when students are given less financial aid from their top-choice college than other colleges and can express to the financial aid officer why they want to go to the school AND show them a better award from a similar school. The college may then match the better award."
If students plan to ask for more aid, Dubrow recommends that the student "plan out what they are going to say and practice before calling or have someone read over the email they are going to send before sending it."
Thinking long-term is also part of the equation — financial aid is not just for one year. "When students review their financial aid awards, ask how this package will support you long-term. Decipher which award is in the form of grants and scholarships (money you do not need to pay back) versus loans (which will impact your long-term budget," says Montiel.
Is it possible that FAFSA form was filled out incorrectly?
"Call or visit the financial aid office to confirm that your FAFSA (and possibly your CCS Profile, if it was required) were completed correctly to reflect an accurate Expected Family Contribution (EFC), since financial aid offices create your package based on this number," advises Montiel.
Many colleges offer scholarships to incoming students. Montiel recommends that students ask colleges if any scholarships are available that they may have overlooked. This is especially important for students who did not complete the FAFSA because they thought they wouldn't apply for need-based aid -- they may not have been aware of some merit awards.
"I recently had a student who did not complete the FAFSA because his parents knew they didn't qualify for need-based aid. When he spoke to the financial aid office, the college advised him to complete the FAFSA, and within one month, was awarded $12,000 for the year in the form of a college (institutional) grant, which is money he did not have to pay back," says Montiel.
Many students apply to college due to other preferences and don't always take cost into consideration. Doing a college comparison based on costs can help.
"Review the list of colleges who accepted you by creating a chart listing the total financial aid award amount, and the difference that your will have to pay," says Montiel. "Should your call with the financial aid officers not offer you additional help, then consider attending the college that meets your budget. This may not be your 'dream' college, but it certainly offers the best value and for a college you considered worthy of applying to in the first place."
Campus housing can be a considerable college cost. Not all campuses allow freshmen to live off campus, but some do.
"Research housing alternatives that will help keep the costs down, but without sacrificing the critical importance of you living on campus during your first year," says Montiel. "Research has found that freshman students who live on campus during their first year, at minimum, tend to do better toward college success than those living off campus. Still, you may have options to cut housing costs by having more roommates and/or selecting a meal plan that costs less."
Living off campus also may be a cheaper option to consider in the later years of college. If a student can attend a college locally and live at home, that is also a more affordable option.
"Some students have a very difficult time letting go of their first-choice college, even if it's the most expensive for their families. If all other options above lead nowhere, you can consider starting at a less expensive college (e.g., local community college) and transfer into your first-choice college after one to two years," says Montiel.
Students should know that many public institutions have a more seamless transfer process from community colleges to public universities than in past decades. Transferring from a community college to a private four-year institution may not be quite as seamless.
"Students must make sure that courses taken at their first college will articulate into the college they want to transfer to," says Montiel. "Students can work with the transfer admission officers to understand the requirements before making this decision."
Sometimes if it's too difficult to make the decision to attend, postponing the decision may be worthwhile.
"Although this option isn't as popular, you can ask to defer your acceptance for a period of time (e.g., one term or one year) if you believe that this extension will provide the financial resources to meet your budget (e.g., you work full-time for a year). However, deferment is not always approved, and is often considered on a case-by-case basis," advises Montiel.
It's advisable to have not just a college backup, but a college affordability backup.
"This is obviously not a solution if a student already got an insufficient financial aid package and doesn't have any affordable options that they got into, but I also recommend that students have at least one college on their list that they are likely to get into that is affordable. There may be some affordable colleges with rolling admissions that are still accepting applications," says Dubrow.
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