Understand The True Cost of College Attendance by Decoding Award Letters

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They’ve waited. They’ve watched the mail for weeks. Finally, the letter arrived: Students are getting notice that they’ve been accepted to the school of their dreams! But after the moment of excitement and congratulations wears off , the realization sets in: it’s going to cost money to go to school.

Even if a family has prepared for years, saving money, investing in 529 plans and being on top of completing their student’s FAFSA, now is a crucial time to pay attention to information from schools and have a clear understanding of the financial aid award letter.

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Financial aid award letters are sent to students in the weeks after receiving their acceptance letter to a school and reflects the cost of attendance as well as the financial options available to families to help pay for their student’s education. As the letters state, a student’s place in the schools incoming class cannot be reserved until a deposit is received based on the financial award letter. But families should take the time to understand their award letter before submitting any form of deposit, as these deposits are not refundable if a student decides not to attend a particular school.

Currently, there is no standard format for schools to report the financial aid being offered to a student. So families should use these tips to better understand what is being offered and make a smart comparison between what different schools will cost. The school with the lowest tuition fees might not always be the best financial choice thanks to financial aid awards. Knowing how to read the financial aid award letter can make all the difference.

  1. Find “free money”
    Many schools offer students institutional scholarships or grants. These types of funding can be seen as “free money” because students and families don’t have to repay this money after graduation. Make sure to look for words such as “scholarship” or “grant” in the name of the financial award. These awards are often given to students based on the information in the Student Aid Report created when completing the FAFSA, based on income or family responsibility. Families may miss these awards because they do not technically apply for them separately.
  1. Consider loans and work study options separately
    To help show families how they can meet the cost of attendance at their school, award letters will also include options that require repayable loans or other options that require further action by the student, such as work study programs. Since there is no standard format for separating these options from other “free money,” families need to recognize that any loans taken out, be they private or federal Stafford loans, will require repayment by either the student or parent (depending on the loan) after graduation. This is not funds being offered by the school, but money that will require repayment.
  1. Know the difference between “direct” and “indirect” costs.
    Attending college features a variety of costs, but not all of them will necessarily be covered the financial aid offered in the award letter. The “cost of attendance” on a financial aid award letter applies to direct school costs, such as tuition, room and board. Indirect costs, such as books for classes or travel to and from school are not considered in an award letter. These costs are those that the student and family will have to bear personally.
  1. Determine if awards are for one year or more.
    Many families fall into the trap of thinking that the financial award letter reflects the costs and awards for all four years of school when, in reality, the letter reflects the cost for one year of school. While many of the loans listed on an award letter will be available to students each year, many of the grants or scholarships listed may require a new application each year or, in some cases, are only available for one year. Determining which of these awards are renewable, or the length of the award, can help families avoid an unpleasant surprise.
  1. Make sure the award letter is final.
    In some cases, an award letter might not reflect the final amount of aid being offered to a student. If any section of the letter uses words such as “estimated,” “tentative” or “pending,” the school may not have all the information from a student’s FAFSA or other document needed to make a final determination of aid. Once this information is provided, it may have an impact on the amount of aid that the student is finally offered.

Understanding the financial award letter that students receive can lead to some difficult decisions about where a student should go to school. By making the best effort to compare award letters from all schools that have accepted a student, families can make an informed choice of which school fits best with a student’s goals while creating a financial plan that will avoid any bad surprises or unexpected debt down the road.

Five Tips For Eye-Catching College Applications

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As students completing their college applications look for every edge possible to catch an admissions officer’s eye, it’s important to remember that those things that make students stand out are more basic than a fancy essay or overly-packed resume.

Here are some tips for students to keep in mind if they’re applying now or are planning for their college applications in the years ahead:

1.  Get Involved, But From The Heart

Community involvement and extracurricular activities go a long way toward showing admissions officers not only who a student is, but what they want to be. However, throwing together a bunch of activities in an attempt to impress colleges can work against a student (and probably make that student miserable to boot). Students who follow their interests, help others and find activities in which they just have fun will show colleges what a student really has to offer. Even better, starting early (think middle school) and keeping involved through high school will show that a student isn’t just getting involved with extracurriculars to pad a resume.

2.  Test Scores Matter.

“No, duh!” says pretty much every Senior and their family. But, hey, we said these were simple and this one’s DEFINITELY worth a reminder. Don’t take the ACT lightly. Spend the time to study and prepare for the test, including reviewing test-taking strategies. Taking the test multiple times will also give students a chance to work through the nerves of the big day and gain experience that will serve them on subsequent sittings. Don’t worry. Schools are going to take your best individual scores. Admissions officers hate taking tests, too.

3.  Take Challenging Classes, Get Good Grades

Again, not a news flash here: grades are important to show a school that students know what they’re doing in the classroom. The thing worth remembering, though, is that schools pay attention to difficulty of the class as well as the grade. Does a student’s school have Advanced Placement (AP) or Honors classes? If so, a B in an AP class looks just as good as an A in a less challenging class, with the added bonus that the student is achieving success in a more difficult (often college-level) course.

4.  Know About The School

Sure, it would be pretty foolish to think that a student doesn’t know the school for which they’re actually applying. There’s a difference, though, between knowing and KNOWING. Students who research and visit colleges before applying gives them the advantage of determining whether or not a school is the right fit for their future, which might encourage them to take advantage of early admission application and scholarship options. Schools tend to appreciate the commitment and dedication that early application shows and could be the difference that gets a student into that target school. Attend college fairs, either in person or online (if a school offers them) to learn more and get familiar with admissions officers and other aspects of the application process. Plus, there’s no reason students need to wait until their junior year to visit schools. Getting students to college visits as early as 8th grade, like those schools in Iowa College Aid’s GEAR UP Iowa program do, not only gives them a taste of what a college is like but can give them a motivational goal that lasts all the way through high school.

5.  Take Advantage A Secret Weapon: Summer

Out of school? There are many ways to take advantage of vacation to get ready for college. From high-school student programs and classes at a student’s target school to volunteer and internship opportunities to a summertime job, colleges love students who make good use of their free time. Yes, there’ll still be time to hang out by the pool with friends (adults have to make time, might as well start learning now!). But more importantly, when it comes time to reviewing similar student applications, a college admissions officer might end up giving the nod to a student who spent their summer teaching at their church’s day camp instead of playing Xbox One all day. Students who take the extra step will be the ones who succeed.

Think Like an Admissions Officer When Completing Your College Application

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December and the start of the new year is crunch time for students filling out college applications. Some students who submitted for a variety of early admission programs have received word while others are hoping to find replies from regular admission programs in the coming weeks.

To better understand the “why” of college admissions, it’s important to appreciate the “how” used by admissions officers to determine which students are the best prospective fit for their incoming class. While many of the factors are obvious, other elements about a student and their application that families might fear as negatives can actually be positives.

Many of the leading criteria for a student application are the ones that most people immediately consider when targeting a prospective school: academic criteria, talent and community involvement are all major parts of an application.

Academics are the best predictor of a student’s academic success at a highly selective college, including grades and standardized test scores. The competitiveness of a student’s high school letters of recommendation from the guidance counselor and the teachers who know the student the best are also considered other highly significant academic factors.

Having a particular talent also can be a key way to individualize a student application. Borin points out in the article that when a college has received almost 20,000 or more applicants, a talented oboist is only competing against other talented oboists with similar grades and standardized test scores. The most competitive colleges are always seeking to form a well-rounded class of talented students. Having a particular talent can help set a student apart.

Other facts that impact an application are ones that might not immediately jump into a family’s mind. For example, while some families might consider geography a negative influence on applications, it can actually work to their benefit. If a student is applying to a highly competitive school, but is from a state that has fewer applicants, they could have an edge as, once again, the most competitive schools try to maintain diversity in their student body not only in race and socioeconomic status, but in geographical representation as well.

Many other factors can influence a student’s chances with an admissions officer. The all-important essay and the willingness to show a commitment to the school through such things as early-decision applications are major factors, but being a legacy at a school (having relatives that attended the same school) can apply at any college, and not just if a student comes from a wealthy family.

The number of things that can influence an admissions officer can seem overwhelming. But, in the end, the best way to make an impact is for students to not only be unique, but authentic. Being able to show a student who can balance academics with extracurricular activities and involvement in their community is appealing to any admissions officer. These students are the ones who often show the passion and drive that will make them a success both in the classroom and in life. And that is appealing to any school.

Winter is Coming: Three Easy Ways to Fight Off Winter Blues

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Many students see getting to college as an educational goal achieved. Once they get there, though, stress and other issues related to life on a college campus becomes a new challenge to be overcome. An increasing number of studies show that many college freshman give up on their education due to mental health problems, as that variety of pressures a new environment can make students think that school is more than they can bear. Throw winter into the mix and it can become even more difficult for students to maintain their path on the course to success.

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Here are some easy ways for students to deal with the change of season while staying on top of their mental health during the winter:

Adjust schedules

The usual routine of leaving a warm dorm bed minutes before class won’t cut it come winter time. Take at least 5-10 minutes extra to account for ice on your path to class, snow and time to admire the cute squirrels. Not only will this change help students overcome the perils of winter, but a change in routine is an easy way to get out of a rut that can lead to depression.

Maintain a healthy diet

Physical health is tied to mental health. While dining halls might offer more hot chocolate and marshmallows during the colder days, comfort food doesn’t always mean healthy food. A 2010 study found that the quality of diet impacts levels of depression in college students more than other factors such as socioeconomic or family issues. [1]

Take personal time, but don’t be afraid to talk to someone

College is challenging, but it’s important that students remember that they can succeed. Having support both from home and campus can mean a great deal to students dealing with the stress and emotional difficulties of facing college on their own. Having time to sit back and watch TV, read a book or just relax is an important part of a student’s day. And while calling home or writing letters or emails to touch base with family is important, the support of friends, social groups or even the mental health services available on campus can be more important in staying mentally healthy and addressing the depression that can come with winter. Talking to someone and asking for support is NOT a sign of weakness, it’s an important part of dealing with difficulties and staying on the road to success.

Selected for FAFSA Verification? Don’t Stress! Here’s What to Do!

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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:

  1. 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”.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Don’t Let Student Loan Repayment Myths Cost You Time, Money

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The thrill of earning a diploma is often being offset by fears of dealing with student loan repayment. While loan repayment is inevitable, many new grads will start on the wrong foot because of assumptions about their student loan responsibilities and ways to pay back their debt.

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As we conclude #FinancialAidAwarenessMonth, here are four common myths that can be easily avoided to prevent students starting down the wrong path. It’s good advice for not just recent grads, but current students and those considering the impact of student loan debt on their educational plans:

If I need help understanding or dealing with student loans, my former college or university won’t help me. Even though a student may have graduated from a school, their financial aid office is still a great resource to help explain loan repayment options and connect students with loan servicers. Financial aid offices have a vested interest in helping students understand and stay on track with their loan repayment, as high default rates can negatively impact a school. So if a student starts to get confused by paperwork, the financial aid department is a great place to start..

I’ll never pay off my loans. Those first payments after graduation may feel a bit overwhelming, and will likely be a large part of any budget as a student gets started in their career. Salary increases, paying extra when budget allows and plain old perseverance will lead to progress. Income-based plans and automatic payments are just two options to “set and forget” loan repayment as a part of monthly budgeting.

Consolidating my student loans into one loan is a good idea. Loan consolidation may offer convenience, but often students will find themselves in situations which either are not eligible for consolidation or can actually negatively impact their repayment. Loan servicers will already use a combined billing for students with Federal loans so that the students have one payment to make and federal loans can’t be combined with private loans in a federal direct consolidation loan. In some cases, consolidating Perkins Loans can lead to students losing repayment benefits that the loan provides.

Filing for bankruptcy means not having to repay student loans. While Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy does help protect against some loans, most borrowers will not be able to discharge their student loans unless it can be proven that the loan repayment will cause an undue financial hardship. Rather than negatively impact a credit record with a bankruptcy, students should consider finding more flexible payment plans that best meet their needs during repayment.

Debunking Two Common Financial Aid Myths

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Financial Aid Awareness Month is dedicated to helping families and students of all ages better understand the options available to them as they look to fund their educational goals and dreams. Iowa College Aid has dedicated a page to discussing some of the common issues facing those looking for financial aid.

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Our staff of financial aid experts have also helped out this month, with advice on how to overcome financial aid issues (see last week’s post). This week they address two of the common myths that students have about applying for grants and scholarships and how to debunk them.

Myth #1: We make too much/my parents make too much – I won’t get anything

Family income is definitely a factor when it comes to handing out financial aid.  The best kind of financial aid is always the “free” kind – the scholarships and grants that are given freely with no expectation of being paid back later.  And often it’s this “free” money that has a “financial need” component to it.  Many scholarship and grant providers want to give their awards to students who show some kind of financial need, and when a student’s/family’s income is high, usually the financial need is low.

Not all scholarships and grants are need-based, however.  If your student is motivated, they can seek out scholarship and grant opportunities that are based on skills, abilities and interests, grades, musical, athletic or dramatic talent, essay-writing, or a number of other merit-based achievements.   The key is looking for them.  You know the saying, “you can’t win if you don’t play”?  That same philosophy applies to scholarship competitions.   Investing some time online searching for “scholarships for high school juniors” or “scholarships for journalism majors” or, if writing essays isn’t a strength for your student, “no essay scholarships” might provide some avenues of funding.

Myth #2: My parents aren’t helping me pay for college so I can’t get financial aid.

Students who are financially independent from their parents can often access additional student loan funds, but a parent’s unwillingness to pay for college doesn’t make you financially independent from them. 

The primary circumstances that cause a student to be financially independent are:

  • Age
  • Orphan/ward of court/foster care/emancipated minor/legal guardianship/homeless status
  • Veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States
  • Graduate or professional student
  • Student’s marriage
  • Student provides support to dependents

Detailed information about these circumstances can be found on the federal Department of Education website https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out/dependency

 If a student has no contact with their parents, or if the student doesn’t reside with their parents because of an abusive or neglectful situation, the student can approach the financial aid office at their college for special instructions on how to complete the parent section of the FAFSA or to determine if there’s a need for a dependency override.