The financial planners of the world will tell you to start saving for college before the baby’s first word is spoken. Wow, that would be great… unless you need to use that money for FOOD!! I am here to tell you to take stock of what you have when it is time for your student to apply to college and really get to know the financial aid process. DO NOT be discouraged by your lack of funds. Empower yourself with the information that is available about financial aid. As a single parent, I at first felt overwhelmed thinking about the annual college cost compared to my salary! If you are in the same position, don’t despair. There is support available for you, but you must be proactive in seeking it.
Begin to play with money figures from the schools that are in the Possibilities Bin (see Admission Tips). Visit Finaid and use their estimation calculator for Expected Family Contribution. The EFC will become a household word before this process is over. This is a great way, also to really know about your own finances. As a single parent, I HAD to learn facts and figures long before this process started. Gather your past income taxes as a starting place, and begin to plug “what if” scenarios into the financial aid calculator to determine what affects the EFC. Advice is only words, but the numbers don’t lie!!
Have your student go to Fastweb and fill out a profile. Fastweb will send you by email the different scholarships that your student may apply for. This is a FREE service and is remarkable in the way that it will keep you informed of scholarships that are posted which meet the profile of your student. Many scholarships seem to be very specific in nature (such as a student of Native Indian heritage who will be pursuing a major in violin repair). However, try to keep all of your options open at this stage.
Check with the scholarships offered by your own state. In many cases, this means filling out more papers which list your income and assets. Some of these scholarships may be for one year, but any money is good money!
Visit the financial aid page of the schools in the Possibilities Bin( see Admissions Tips). As ridiculous as it may sound, each school’s web page on financial aid can carry a “tone” to it which just might give an indication of the schoo’s willingness to work with you. The following quote from the FA page of Rollins College says it all. “You want a college that provides a firm commitment to student financial aid. Every year, Rollins increased the amount awarded to students.” When my daughter received a favorable award package from Rollins College for her first year, I was told by some people to be careful because some schools will do this for the first year as a way to entice students and then cut back on the second year. I am grateful to say that Rollins did not do this. However, I think it is a valid question to ask.
Visit USNews and check out the financial aid page for each of the schools in the Possibilities Bin. This is where the “facts” regarding the school’s record in granting financial aid can be seen. Many of the official college web sites do not talk about “numbers.” USNews will give you the statistics which are important when you are talking about financial aid.
When you are applying Early Decision (See Admission Tips), there should also be accompanying materials for preliminary awarding of financial aid. In Kristin’s case, the preliminary award letter arrived about two weeks after her acceptance. Her final award letter offered even more substantial financial aid than what was in the preliminary estimate
Become acquainted with the various forms of financial aid which will comprise the Financial Aid package in the Award letter. I found that some schools will boast that they try to support a student financially, but their award letter contains mostly loans. I think for most middle class wage earners, $25,000 worth of loans for one year is unrealistic. Again, check out USNews to compare how the percentages of Award Letters compare.
Another acronym which will become a household word is FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid) The FAFSA can be filed after January 1 for the fall term. There is a box on it which will ask you if you have filed your tax return or if you Will file. Because I prefer to be an early bird, I fill out the FAFSA with estimated amounts and check the will file box, You will received your EFC based on this amount. Then, once your tax returns are finalized, you take the EFC which was sent to you and make the corrections on that form and send to the address that is given to you. The whole FAFSA process can be done on the web. It is my personal preference, though, to do it on paper, make the copies, and then send out the info.
Each college will also have its own financial aid form for you to complete. Due dates are important. This will be stated on all of the forms
Most of these forms will need to be completed each year. I found it helpful to keep copies so that I can refer to my past answers. This will really help when you have to do some of the “Worksheets” associated with the FAFSA. Some of the terms can be confusing, and by looking at my past answers, I know how I interpreted those terms in past years. Also, the Renewal FAFSA will be sent to you each year, and this will have your responses from the past year noted on it to save you some time.
Develop an honorable working relationship with the financial aid office of the chosen school. When you are asked for a form or supporting documents, mail them as soon as possible. Many colleges will state that financial aid money will first be awarded to those whose papers are completed by the due date. Use the organizational skills I talked about earlier, and send in whatever is needed without needing a reminder. For my daughter’s second semester at Rollins, she received a letter stating that $500 which was earmarked as a loan would now be turned into a grant because Rollins was distributing extra funds to the students who had followed the necessary steps in the financial aid process in a timely manner! Keep yourself and your student in the running for any perks by doing your share.