Overview of the Financial Aid Process

For most people, the financial aid process begins and ends with the FAFSA or CSS Profile. Unfortunately, that’s why most people find themselves in the situations they do when it comes to financial aid. The good news is this doesn’t have to be the case for your family.

When it comes to the financial aid process, there are several opportunities for families to improve their standing, from the beginning of the planning process to the total amount of awards received and all the way through how to pay for the rest.

Here’s my overview of the financial aid process, along with a few of the milestones and a description of each.

Understand your family’s expected cost

While it’s important that a school is a fit academically and socially, it should also be a fit financially. While you won’t know the exact cost of college until you are through the entire financial aid process, you can get an idea of what specific schools will cost your family using different resources.

Prepare for financial aid forms

Most people will skip this step and move right on to the next, the completion of the financial aid forms. However, you can save yourself from stress, and maybe paying schools more than you have to, if you properly prepare.

Financial aid form deadlines are manufactured, in that in most cases you can still receive aid even after the listed deadlines. Still, it is recommended you complete the required paperwork prior to these manufactured deadlines in order to receive maximum aid. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to let your financial professionals know ahead of time the requirements you’ll have in order to make sure your taxes, or at least the estimates, will be ready within time to complete the forms. Just like everything else, it’s better to be ahead of the curve on this. If you wait until a week out from deadlines to demand this information, you may be one of many requesting this. Get the required info ahead of time so you can complete these forms on your schedule.

Complete financial aid forms

Once you have an idea of what type of admission you are applying for, regular, early action or early decision, you can determine when you’ll need to complete financial aid forms. The schools you’re applying to will also determine the type of financial aid forms you need to complete; in most cases either just the FAFSA or the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. As previously mentioned, it’s extremely important to complete these forms prior to the deadlines set by schools in order to receive maximum financial aid.

Receive and interpret award letter

Award letters can be confusing. They are also not all created equal. You’ll want to have someone, even it if it is only the school itself, reviewing and interpreting this award letter for you. In this way you can know exactly what your offer is and how it compares to others.

Negotiate additional financial aid

Most people assume that the initial award letter they receive is the end of the story, something that is static. But that doesn’t have to be the case. You can increase the amount of financial aid you receive by simply asking for additional funds. Of course, what you say and who you say it to is extremely important.

Understand financing options and payment plans

Once the financial aid award is finalized, many families are left determining how to pay the remaining balance. From navigating education savings plans (ex. 529), to loan options to payment plans offered by the school, it’s good to have a resource available to explain your options and provide the pros and cons.

Complete more financial aid forms

Just when you thought you were done. Even after the FAFSA and CSS Profile are complete there will likely be additional required documents from the school. There are forms and processes used to confirm financial aid, essentially audits. There are also forms that are needed to accept the aid that’s been offered. Make sure you have an understanding of all your requirements prior to the start of freshman year.

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