Scholarships and Grants

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.

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.

Applying To Multiple Schools With Common App Can Be A Key to Success for Families

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October is #CollegeApplicationMonth, recognizing and encouraging high school seniors who are starting the process of applying for college. Iowa College Aid’s “College Application Campaign” works in schools around Iowa to help students complete at least one college application during the course of the school day.

According to many education professionals (including a high school principal and college representative), completing only one college application can severely reduce a student’s chances to getting accepted to a school. While students may have already targeted which school is their number one choice, applying to other schools will provide alternatives, should they not be accepted. The term “safety school” might be thrown around, but, for many students, finding a school that fits their needs can result in having more than one option when it comes to a school that can help them meet their goals.

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One way of applying for multiple schools easily is by completing the “Common Application.” This application allows students to complete one application and then choose the schools to which the application should be sent. While this can save time, not all schools accept the Common Application. Eleven Iowa schools are included in the 149 schools in the Midwest available through the Common Application, but include public schools such as the University of Northern Iowa, as well as many private colleges and universities, such as Drake University.

For Katie Pilcher, a mother who has recently sent her son to college, the Common Application provided a great tool for saving time and relieving some of the stress connected with the college application process. She shares her recent experiences:

My advice is to attend any meetings with counselors about the application process that schools provide.  It is also helpful to become very familiar with the Common App, since most colleges use that.  Parents and students should do online searching about colleges they’re interested in so that they understand each college‘s application process and deadlines.

The whole process can be stressful at times.  My sons wanted some freedom and independence in filling out applications, yet at times they needed gentle reminders about deadlines!

Both of my sons applied to several schools so that their bases were covered and because they were interested in more than one school.  Some colleges require essays above and beyond the essay part of the Common App, which can prolong the application process and put added pressure on students.  Therefore, it’s important to determine the application process of colleges, especially when applying to several colleges.

Personal Connection is Key for College Apps, Says Drake Professor

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College Application Month focuses on encouraging students to take the first step toward their future by completing their college application. But for many students and families the process of what makes a good application can seem a mystery.

Once students have found a school that seems a good match, completing the application and essay that goes with it can be a stressful process that, when done well, can help a student stand out from the pack. But how to do that? Drake University professor Jeff Inman serves as an interviewer and application reviewer for some of the school’s most prestigious scholarships, but even he admits that the upcoming application process his 15-year-old son will be undertaking in a few short years can be daunting.

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To better help students and families gain focus on the process, he offers some advice on what makes a student’s college application stand out:

While I am always impressed with the resumes of the applying students, many of who are so busy I always wonder if they have to go without sleep to get everything done, it’s the essay that really solidifies the standouts for me. Those students who don’t just answer the question, but tell a story, really catch my eye. They don’t just talk about a fictional character they relate to or a quote they are inspired by. They find a moment in their life, an epiphany they had, or a failure they learned from and relate it to the question. To me, that shows they not only understand the essence of the question but also can make the kind of connections college demands of them. That said, typos undermine everything.

 

As with other educators, Inman also thinks that students who limit their college search to just one application are putting themselves at a disadvantage.

There are benefits from filling out multiple applications. There are lots of amazing schools out there where students will have a great experience, learn amazing things, and grow as people. I might be in the minority here, but I don’t feel there is one perfect school for any student. So apply to the schools you feel comfortable at, provide you the opportunities and experiences you want, and work for your family.

College Fairs Offer Students a Great Tool for Finding College Fit

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The new starting date for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is just about here. Completing the FAFSA, though, isn’t the end of the road for college preparation. Throughout the school year, students have opportunities to visit with colleges and find out more about what each school offers and how that school does (or doesn’t) relate to a student’s plan for their future.

Making that match is called “college fit” and it can mean the difference between getting the most of education after high school and frustrations that could lead to transferring schools or, worse, not completing a degree.

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The good news: Colleges offer tours that allow students to see the campus, talk to professors and students and get answers to questions about their education. Even better: Students can get much of that information without even leaving their own high school thanks to college fairs held throughout the year. These events, often held at the local high school, include representatives from schools both near and far looking to put their best foot forward for prospective students.

College fairs are the first step toward finding college fit and students who attend college fairs will get a head-start on making a smart choice on where to go to school. As with anything, approaching the event with a game plan will help students get even more out of college fairs.
Start with these five tips:

  1. Is a college strong in a student’s major? Not all high school students are going to have an idea of what their major will be, but it helps to have some idea of what they might be interested in as a career. If students have an idea, they can ask schools about programs in those areas. Some colleges specialize in certain majors or are known for having strong programs in particular fields.
  2. Does a school’s size matter? Larger schools often mean more students in classes (sometimes over 100 students), but a bustling community. Smaller colleges might have fewer students, but that might mean more direct interaction with teachers and smaller class sizes. A student can talk to representatives at a college fair to get an idea of the school’s size and start to consider which appeals to them.
  3. What’s college life like? While a visit to the actual campus will give students the best idea of what life is like at a given school, college fairs frequently include representatives from schools who are either current students or recent graduates. Of course, these representatives will always look to emphasize what makes their school better than the rest, but talking to college students is a great way for high school students to get an early idea of what life is like in college.
  4. Take all the materials available. Schools visiting college fairs will have lots of giveaways: stickers, squeezeballs, pens, and more. But the most important materials to take away from college fairs are the informational brochures that talk more about the school. These materials might not answer every question a student might have about a school, but they will frequently include websites or links to other resources to learn more if interested.
  5. Make notes, take it all in, but don’t rush to any decisions. College fairs are the introduction to schools for many students and representatives are chosen by schools to present their school in the most attractive way possible. It’s great if students are inspired to learn more about schools after a college fair. But rather than eliminate schools from their list, students would be better off ranking a list of schools that grabbed their attention and listing the reasons why that school might be a good fit. From there, it’s easy to start researching further into which schools should really make the cut.

For more tips and advice for preparing and planning for college, as well as financial aid and college information, check out Iowa College Aid’s “Your Course to College.” You can read, download or order your own copy on our website.