By now, students and families with an eye toward college, or any kind of education beyond high school, should have a pretty good understanding of just how important the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is to helping them achieve their goals. If not, here’s a good place to get started with the FAFSA.
Filing the FAFSA is crucial to getting money for school. But what happens after submitting the FAFSA? Here are some things for families to look out for, as well as some things to remember when dealing with information
Student Aid Report
After completing the FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education will process the data and compile the Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR will be sent to families and the colleges selected during the FAFSA. If an email address was provided during the application, instructions to access an online copy of the SAR will be emailed; otherwise it will arrive snail mail.
Typically, applicants can access their SAR within three to five days if the FAFSA was filed electronically (approximately three weeks if filed by paper). The SAR contains the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) as well as initial information about Pell Grant eligibility. Colleges and universities use the EFC to determine student eligibility for federal grants, loans, work-study and other financial aid programs.
How is the Expected Family Contribution Calculated?
Variables that determine a student’s EFC include income and net worth for the student and parents, family size, age of older parent, state and federal taxes and number of family members attending college. As a result, the EFC might change from year to year when the FAFSA is refiled.
Understanding Financial Need vs. College Costs
Each college or university listed on a student’s FAFSA application that accepts that student will determine financial need and present the applicant with an award letter describing the aid offered. “Financial Need” is determined by calculating the Cost of Attendance (COA) minus the EFC determined through the FAFSA.
The EFC will remain the same in a given year (unless an unusual family situation arises) regardless of which college or university the student attends. The amount of aid received cannot exceed the total cost of attendance at a college or university.
Each award letter will include federal, state and college-specific financial aid programs. It is likely that a student’s award letter will include one or more types of loans. These letters often don’t cleanly show which funds offered are scholarship or grant aid (free money) and which are loans (money which must be repaid). To get some tips on understanding award letters, check out our video series here and here.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.