May 16, 2011

Staying Ahead in the Financial Aid Game

Even though the clock is ticking down, there are still ways to stay ahead in the financial aid game. With a few properly-executed “plays,” you can definitely have an impact on what financial aid is offered and how close it comes to meeting your needs.

  • Complete the FAFSA. Even if you missed state and/or institutional priority deadlines, you should still complete a FAFSA as soon as possible. Yes, most schools have already allocated their funds. But if there is anything left over, they may try to accommodate late filers. And even if a school has distributed all its own aid, applicants remain eligible for federal loans and Pell grants. Do it NOW. If you need a little help beyond the information provided on the FAFSA website, check out 7 Easy Steps to the FAFSA produced by UC Santa Barbara. It’s a wonderful resource!

  • Submit Corrections. If you completed your FAFSA based on estimates, you should update immediately using tax information from 2010. Although colleges distribute financial aid packages based on estimates, they expect corrections to be made as soon as final information is available. Be aware that they may amend your package if revised numbers vary significantly from the estimates you provided—but this can certainly work to your advantage if your income estimates were high.

  • Answer your mail. Watch for correspondence related to your FAFSA or other school-based financial aid requests. And keep in mind that colleges are required by the federal government to randomly select some applications for “verification.” If you are asked to provide additional information or to clarify any of your answers on application forms, respond immediately.

  • Keep financial aid offices informed. Be sure to make financial aid offices aware of any significant change in family circumstances, such as an unexpected layoff, a salary cut, a divorce, or the death of a parent or guardian. Most colleges are very understanding and will make every effort to respond promptly and with great compassion. It’s better to be upfront about situations over which you have no control than to let a problem fester until neither you nor the college can solve it.

  • Educate yourself about student loans. Since July 1, 2010, all new federal education loans are being made through the Direct Loan program and your college’s financial aid office with funds provided by the US Department of Education. Although federal loans typically offer lower interest rates and more flexible repayment plans (including some loan forgiveness opportunities), it’s up to you to be a smart consumer. Check out the information provided on the FinAid website and contact your financial aid office with any additional questions you may have.

  • Continue the scholarship hunt. Admittedly pickings are getting a little slim. Nevertheless, continue checking with scholarship websites like Cappex or FastWeb, and register to receive up-to-date information on competitions or other scholarship opportunities. Also, don’t hesitate to ask about the availability of additional or future scholarship money at your college or university.

  • Keep your grades up. Colleges reserve the right to rescind merit scholarships if grades drop below the point of eligibility. On the other hand, strong senior year grades may push your overall GPA to a level high enough to qualify for additional money. Even a tenth of a percentage point could make a difference in dollars received. Again, it never hurts to ask.

If you have questions concerning FAFSA on the Web, do not hesitate to contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 1-319-337-5665. You can also contact the Center by email or request "live help" by clicking a button located on the FAFSA website.

Most importantly, remember that even at this late date, it’s worth playing the game to win.

Photo courtesy of Flicker:ellievanhoutte

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