Students have a lot to deal with as they prepare for college and figure out how to pay for their education. But what about once they get to school? Financial aid can help pay for the cost of school, but covering that distance between direct costs (tuition and school fees) and indirect costs (food, books… and just about everything else) is often the first chance for students to explore what it’s like to live with the same financial pressures as an adult.
Having a good game plan is important either planning for college or dealing with creating a budget and financial goals during (and after) college. Here are some tips to help students develop positive habits with money both now and throughout their life:
- Make a budget. Commit to creating a monthly budget AND live within your budget each month.
- Utilize a calendar. A calendar is not just for plotting your class schedule, campus organizational meetings, and social events. A calendar can be an effective tool for managing the due dates for your monthly bills—rent, cell phone bill, car payment, utility bill, etc. Making note of due dates helps to ensure that you will not miss a payment and potentially harm your credit history.
- Shop around for text books. Many bookstores, as well as online retailers, offer used textbooks for much cheaper than buying a “new” textbook. If you won’t want to keep your textbook for future reference after a class has concluded, consider renting a textbook for the semester.
- File the FAFSA on-time, every year. If you plan on attending college in the upcoming school year, be sure to file your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) prior to your college’s priority deadline. Doing so will ensure you are considered for all financial aid opportunities the school has to offer.
- Get a part-time job. A part-time job can allow you to meet your basic needs, as well as reducing the amount of student loans you need to borrow. Working 15 hours per week at a part-time job can dramatically reduce your need for student loans to cover living expenses. Additionally, most colleges have numerous on-campus employment opportunities for students.
- Plan early for a summer internship. During the first week of the spring semester, visit your college’s career placement office and discuss your desire for an internship during the upcoming summer with a career advisor. Career advisors can provide information about companies looking for interns, as well as information regarding career fairs on campus. Many internships pay a stipend or salary which can help pay for expenses while you’re in college and can lead to a job after graduation.
- Know your financial aid options. Visit the Financial Aid office on your campus during the first three weeks of the spring semester to discuss your current year’s financial aid and to check into scholarships and grants available for next year.
- Be a savvy shopper. At the grocery store, opt for the store-brand product. It is often significantly cheaper than its name-brand counterpart, and the money you save can be used to pay interest on your student loans or keep you from having to borrow more loans next year.
- Protect your Personal Information. If you aren’t already, start safeguarding your Social Security Number, credit card and bank account numbers, along with any other non-public personal information. Shredding sensitive information will ensure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands and can help protect you from identity theft.
- Separate Needs from Wants. Although it may seem like you need that morning latte from the local coffee house to start your day; at $3.50 per day, that adds up to $1,277.50 per year! Make your financial choices based on what is necessary to meet your basic needs, and avoid wasting money and borrowing more to satisfy your wants.
Keeping these 10 tips in mind can be difficult. But by doing even a few of these, students set themselves up for a financially fit future.
After years of hard work and months of waiting, students are starting to receive acceptance letters from colleges. Those students accepted into more than one college might face some difficult decisions to make when weighing the pros and cons of one school against another.
“College fit” means finding the school that best meets at student’s needs for the future, but there is no such thing as a “perfect school.” Students shouldn’t stress themselves out thinking that if they pick the wrong school, their life will be ruined. After all, college is what you make of it. But with a little research and effort, students and families can feel more secure about the school they pick. Here are some tips :
Compare financial aid awards
While cost shouldn’t be the only thing considered when deciding between schools, the financial aid offered can go a long way to giving one school an edge over another. The financial aid award letter often comes after the acceptance letter, and has many things to consider when reviewing. Check out our videos on comparing financial aid award letters for more tips (here and here).
Dig deeper with schools
Students already researched schools before applying, but now is a chance to get more detailed information to get a more complete picture of what a school offers, not only in education, but day-to-day life. Such questions can include:
- What is the graduation rate? How many students return after their freshman year?
- Are there work or volunteer opportunities that reflect a student’s major or interests?
- What do students do for fun?
- What student support services does the school offer?
Students can talk to college admissions counselors, current students, recent grads or even the college’s official website to research these and other subjects. It’s important to use only trustworthy sources of information and to recognize the difference between fact and opinion. A college’s official website and its admission officers are often the best sources of factual information about that college.
Visit — or revisit — the campuses
Now that a student has been accepted to a school, a college visit becomes even more important. Even if a family has taken a campus visit previously, going back with a more focused approach will help students see if they truly see themselves as a student at that school. Can’t visit a campus? Call or email the admission office with questions, reach out to professors in your areas of interest or ask to connect current students and recent graduates. High school counselors and teachers may also be a good source to recent grads or current students.
Think about it
Research and asking questions can provide the information that students need to make a decision, but asking and answering the important questions can only be done by a student with their family. How did the student feel during their campus visit? Did the school offer both the academic and social aspects that will lead to success? Will they be happy there? These basic questions might lead to some further reflection about each school.
Make your decision
The good news is that schools don’t need to hear back immediately. Many colleges don’t expect a final decision until May 1, so students and families have some time to make up their mind. Lay out the pros and cons and find the school that fits best with financial, academic and career goals. Remember, though, that colleges are serious about reply deadlines. Not sending a deposit by the deadline can lose a student’s place in the incoming class.
Video: Identify, Separate Loans From Grants on Award Letters to Better Understand Out-Of-Pocket Costs
Getting accepted into college is an exciting moment for students and families who are ready to embark on the next part of their educational journey, but can often be offset by concerns about just how much school will cost both now and after graduation.
Financial aid award letters help students and families get a better understanding of what to expect both in terms of money being provided by the school and state, through scholarships and grants, and costs of attendance (COA) at the school.
In part two of our “Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter” video series, we discuss how to best identify repayable financial aid options and separate them from scholarships and grants to get a better picture of the actual financial responsibility that will be required to attend a school.
More often than not, there is a gap between the “free” money being offered to a student and the COA, leaving families to determine the best way to meet the financial requirements.
On many letters, both federal and private loans are included as possible options to bridge that gap. However, as there is currently no standard format for schools to consistently show financial aid options, loan amounts are often included in the same area as scholarships or grants. At a quick glance, families might not realize that loans, which must be repaid after graduation, are being included with the “free” money of grants and scholarships.
For more tips, advice and information for preparing for college, check out Iowa College Aid’s “Your Course to College,” a free downloadable guide for students, families and schools available at https://www.iowacollegeaid.gov/YourCourse
Getting accepted to the college or university of their dreams is the culmination of a years-long effort. But receiving an acceptance letter isn’t the end of the journey, just the start of the next one.
For many families, the excitement of being accepted into a school is often soon replaced by concerns of how to pay for that education. Even those families who have put together a strong financial plan for college may not have a clear picture of what school will cost when their student leaves home.
The financial aid award letter is a document sent to families by the school shortly after the acceptance letter, if not included as part of the acceptance package. The award letter includes cost of attendance and other estimated costs, as well as any scholarships, grants and other funds to help pay for a student’s education.
As there is no standard format for presenting information on the financial aid award letter, families might have a difficult time comparing the actual costs of one school versus another, let alone clearly understand their financial responsibility to their student’s education.
In our new two-part video, we look at the elements of a financial aid award letter and offer tips to families for understanding the true cost of a college education. By following these tips, families can better compare schools and ask the questions of financial aid officers to make the best financial decision for their student’s education.
It’s that time of year when mailboxes fill up for high school seniors anxious to start their college careers. College acceptance letters are a fantastic reward and validation for years of focus and hard work for students ready to move on to the next phase of their life. But what about those other moments when a student must deal with not being accepted to the school of their dreams? Here are some tips to dealing with what could otherwise be a real downer:
It is okay to be disappointed, but don’t blame yourself. If a student doesn’t get into their first-choice school, it might hurt. Take the time to let feel disappointed, be it an hour, a day or a week. But don’t let the negative feelings linger. Often, not getting an offer to enroll at a school has little to do with an individual student. While their GPA and test scores may have been good enough, the increasing numbers of changing factors that admissions officers have to consider (from an increased number of early decision and early action applications, geographical balance issues and more) can put applicants unfairly in the crosshairs. Add in the ever-growing importance of college rankings that reward schools for the number of students they reject, while punishing the same schools for students that turn down acceptance offers, and a student might feel that schools are looking for reasons to say “no.”
Focus on what’s to come, not what might’ve been. If a student has applied to more than one school, it’s likely they will receive an acceptance offer from another school. Instead of dwelling on the schools that didn’t feel they were the right fit, students should focus on, and get excited about, those schools that see them as a great partner in learning.
Know that college is more about what one does than where one goes. While there are schools with names that will open doors after graduation on reputation alone, no school defines a student. More than just attending a school, college is about what a student does once they get there. Regardless of the school they attend, students should keep an eye on using the opportunity to discover their strengths, passions and develop the skills that will give them a rewarding, life-long career.
The college admissions process is technical, complicated and ever-changing. No matter where the college decision process takes a student, they should always remember that the opportunity to continue and develop their education is a rare and unique opportunity, no matter where they go to school.
As students start to think about the next step in their education, they might hear the phrase “college fit” when exploring schools. College fit is the idea that students do better at schools that are best in tune with their academic, philosophical and personal needs.
While the idea of college fit might sound like it comes with a number of things to consider, one of the easiest ways to start tackling the idea of finding a school that works for you is to ask a simple question: What IS college?
While it might seem basic, taking the time to get to know the difference between different schools, including their affiliations, missions and more can help students make subtle, and often important, decisions in choosing the school that fits them best.
When students are deciding on a college or university, the school’s mission might not be the first consideration, but it is something to consider. It can impact a school’s size, cost of tuition, campus climate and more. In short, it can influence the entire student experience.
Here are some categories of schools and what to expect when attending:
Community colleges are usually publicly-funded, two-year institutions with mission statements reflecting their service to the needs of surrounding region. As a result, access is important to community colleges, welcoming all students and offering low-cost tuition. While community college students can graduate with a technical or vocational associate’s degrees, many students use the two years of community college as a starting point before transferring to a four-year institution to complete a bachelor’s degree. Because of that, most community colleges have “articulation agreements” with colleges and universities that guarantee a student’s community college coursework will be accepted for credit at the four-year institution.
Major research universities
Large institutions (either private or public) where research comes first will be called universities. As a result of the interest in research, these schools often have a portion of their faculty members ho are purely “research faculty,” meaning that they teach minimally (and then only advanced graduate students) or not at all. Their work is focused on the generation of new knowledge, often in conjunction with lucrative grants from external sources.
Putting research first doesn’t leave undergraduates at a disadvantage, though. Large institutions may have larger classes, but typically break into small discussion groups to help personalize learning. Academic departments will work closely to reach out to their undergraduate students and communities form in residence halls and through campus clubs to create a breadth of opportunities to students.
Liberal arts colleges
Often promoted as an alternative to large research universities, liberal arts colleges are usually private institutions that focus on a more individualized approach to learning and building relationships in smaller-sized classes. As a result of this focus on the personal experience, these schools tend to prioritize teaching over research. Students are likely to find smaller classes taught by full-time faculty and not graduate assistants.
The focus away from research doesn’t mean that faculty at these types of schools are any less well-qualified than those at larger institutions. Rather, it is more of a philosophical reflection of the teaching vs. research divide between the two types of schools.
As the name would suggest, these institutions (virtually all privately-held) emphasize faith development in addition to educational achievement. These types of institutions range from small Bible colleges to nationally known Jesuit institutions like Georgetown University. For those students who are looking for an education that develops them both academically and spiritually, these types of colleges and universities offer an experience often specifically tailored to their religion.
Verification is the process by which colleges review student financial aid applications for accuracy where the U.S. Department of Education identifies some FAFSA applications for colleges to review. In addition, colleges may review additional applications based on answers provided to certain FAFSA questions.
Roughly one-third of all FAFSAs filed are selected for verification and the process must be completed before financial aid can be awarded. If you are selected for verification, you can expect the following:
- When you receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) after completing the FAFSA, you will see a comment stating “Your FAFSA has been selected for a review process called verification. Your school has the authority to collect certain financial documents from you”.
- Your college’s financial aid office will contact you and inform you of documents you need to submit and any additional forms you need to complete.
- Your college may be required to verify the following data elements:
- Adjusted gross income
- Taxes paid
- Income earned from work (for non-tax-filers)
- Untaxed portions of IRA distributions or pensions
- IRA deductions and payments
- Tax exempt interest income
- Education credits
- Household size
- Number in college
- Receipt of food stamps/SNAP benefit
- Child support paid
- High school completion status
- Any other inconsistent or conflicting information.
- To verify the elements above, the college may ask for documents which may include, but are not limited to:
- Signed copies of the prior year tax transcripts for parent and student (if the student is dependent) or Federal IRS Data Retrieval.
- W-2s showing wages, 1099s and supporting schedules.
- Statement of child support paid, documentation that child support payments were made, and/or copy of the separation agreement or divorce decree that shows the amount of child support to be provided.
- Verification of net worth.
- Documentation of food stamps/SNAP benefit.
- Copy of the applicant’s high school diploma, final official high school transcript that shows the date when the diploma was awarded, GED certificate/transcript, state certificate or transcript received after passing a state-authorized exam (HiSET, TASC or other state-authorized exam) or a copy of the “secondary school leaving certificate” (or other similar document) for students who completed high school in a foreign country.
The best action you can take to reduce the likelihood of being selected for verification is to use the IRS data retrieval tool to automatically populate your (and if you are a dependent student, your parents’) tax information directly from the IRS into your FAFSA. When you use the IRS data retrieval tool, the tax information is considered to be already verified so you will not have to submit documentation.
If you are selected for verification, ensure that you respond to all requests from your college or university. If you do not submit documentation on time your financial aid may arrive after late fees have already been accessed to your account.