Jun 1, 2016

Playing the 2016 financial aid game into overtime

The clock continues to tick down.  But wherever you are in this year’s financial aid process, there are still opportunities to play to win the financial aid game in overtime.

In fact, with a few smooth moves, you might still have a significant impact on what financial aid is offered and how close the dollars come to meeting your needs.

If you think you need more money and are willing to stay in the game, here are late-game financial aid plays to keep your team in the competition:
  1. Create an FSA ID.  The FSA ID—a username and password—replaced the Federal Student Aid PIN and must be used to log-in to certain Department of Education websites.  Your FSA ID will confirm your identity when you access financial aid information and electronically sign Federal Student Aid documents. If you do not already have an FSA ID, you can create one when logging in to fafsa.gov, the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS®) at www.nslds.ed.gov, StudentLoans.gov, StudentAid.gov, and Agreement to Serve (ATS) at www.teach-ats.ed.gov.
  1. Complete the FAFSA. Even if you missed state and/or institutional priority deadlines, you should still complete a FAFSA as soon as possible.  It’s no secret that most colleges have already allocated funds. But if there is anything left, they may try to accommodate late filers especially if they are still trying to fill a class. And even if a school has distributed all its own aid, you may still be eligible for federal loans and Pell grants. Do it NOW.  

  2. Check your status.  After submitting the FAFSA, be sure to check to see whether it has been processed. You should get your Student Aid Report (SAR), which is a summary of the FAFSA data you submitted, within 3 days to 3 weeks depending on whether you filed by paper or online and provided a working email address. Review the SAR carefully for errors.

  3. Submit corrections. If you completed your FAFSA based on estimates, you should update immediately using tax information from 2015. Although colleges can and will distribute financial aid packages based on estimates, they expect corrections to be made as soon as final information is available. Be aware that your financial aid package could be amended if revised numbers vary significantly from the estimates you originally provided—but this can work to your advantage if your income estimates were a little on the high side.

  4. Answer mail. Watch for correspondence related to your FAFSA or other school-based financial aid applications. Keep in mind that colleges are required by the federal government to randomly select applications for "verification” using a “risk model” to identify sections of the FAFSA that are prone to error or which seem inconsistent.  If you are asked to provide additional information or to clarify your answers on application forms, don’t assume you’ve done anything wrong but do respond immediately.  Anyone who has not submitted federal verification requirements by deadline risks having all federal, state, and need-based institutional financial aid cancelled.

  5. Review the fine print.  In the rush of decision-making, you may have missed some important terms contained within your financial aid package.  Be aware of any academic requirements to maintain your scholarship award and be sure that your aid is guaranteed for a minimum of four years. If you expect to study abroad, ask if your financial aid will carry with you. See if there are provisions for covering increases in tuition.  Plan ahead. Don’t wait until the money disappears before addressing these issues with your financial aid office.

  6. Keep colleges informed. Be sure to make colleges 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 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.

  7. Educate yourself about loans. Federal education loans are 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 may offer lower interest rates and more flexible repayment plans (including some loan forgiveness opportunities), it’s up to you to be a smart consumer. The good news is that interest rates on federal student loans are set to drop for the second consecutive year. Undergrads will see rates drop from 4.29% on Stafford loans issued for the 2015-16 school year to 3.76% for the 2016-17 school year.

  8. Go back to the well.   It can’t hurt to ask.  As other students make adjustments in their plans for the fall, previously allocated money may get freed up.  If you’re having a hard time making ends meet or if the mix of grant aid and loans seems burdensome—even without an extraordinary change in circumstances—contact your financial aid office and explain the situation.

  9. Continue the hunt. Admittedly scholarship competitions are getting a little scarce, especially those that might help with fall 2016 expenses. Nevertheless, continue checking with websites like Cappex or FastWeb, and register to receive up-to-date information on competitions or other opportunities. Also, don’t hesitate to ask about the availability of future scholarship dollars at your college or university.  If you hit the ball out of the park freshman year in the way of academics or community service, there may be scholarships targeted to sophomores. 

  10. Be creative.  As you consider various summer employment opportunities or ways to earn a little college cash before starting school, be sure to ask about scholarships, tuition reimbursement, or any other programs that might provide college assistance beyond your paycheck.  And don’t forget about “matching” grants.  Check with your parents’ employers to see if they participate in these kinds of generous scholarship opportunities.

  11. 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, do not hesitate to contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). You can also contact the Center by email or request "live help" by clicking a button located on the FAFSA website.
Remember that even at this late date, the cash may be worth playing into overtime!

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