Tips to Navigate the Financial Aid Field

When learning about financial aid and its associated lingo—the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and 529 plans all come to mind—it can feel like you’re drowning in alphabet soup.

Here are five tips from Rhiannon Schade, director at Collegewise, the largest college counseling company in the nation, that will keep you on the financial fast track.

1. Know where financial aid comes from.
The Federal Government is the biggest source of financial aid for all students. When you fill out the FAFSA, you’re applying for need-based aid from Uncle Sam (although all students who file a FAFSA are eligible for federal unsubsidized student loans, so it’s a good idea to file regardless of whether you feel you’ll qualify for need-based aid). Colleges themselves provide the second most financial aid. The best strategy you can employ to get more financial aid dollars is to apply to a balanced list of colleges, including schools that are safe bets academically (and thus more likely to give you merit-based aid).

2. Assess where you stand in relation to the rest of the applicant pool.
Colleges that offer merit aid are discounting tuition to encourage high-achieving students to choose them over other universities. If you want merit aid, apply to at least four “likely” colleges—schools where, based on your grades and standardized test scores, you have a very high chance of being admitted—because those are the colleges that are most likely to give you with an attractive scholarship offer.

3. Use net price calculators.
The sticker price quoted on college websites is often different from the net price that families pay. You can get a sense of how much college will cost your family by using a net price calculator—federal law mandates that colleges display a net price calculator on their website. The calculator gives you a general idea of what level of aid you might qualify for and what you’ll end up paying out of pocket.

4. Look locally for outside scholarships.
I recommend focusing on small, local scholarships. Because they tend to have fewer applicants, your chances of winning are greater. Most high school guidance offices have a good sense of what local scholarships might be available, so ask your school counselor about scholarships and funds designed to support the education of students within your community.

5. Know what’s required and stay on top of deadlines.
As you are building your college list, keep track of which forms are required and their filing deadlines. I recommend completing the financial aid forms soon after they become available—that means submitting the FAFSA during October of your senior year.

For more tips on how to increase your financial aid award, visit Collegewise.com.