College Financial Aid 101

August 2016 View more

Navigating the application process

If the college search process is like the television reality-show “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette,” in which a prospective college student selects a school from an eager group of would-be suitors, the college financial aid process is akin to receiving the bills for the wedding.

Parents and students rarely describe the financial aid process as easy, but a new federal rule starting this fall aims to make the process smoother by starting the documentation earlier and making it more straightforward.

Changes For The Fall

The primary change for the 2017-18 school year is that students can submit the Free Application of Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form earlier—now as early as Oct. 1, 2016, rather than starting on Jan. 1, 2017. Also, students will report family income information from an earlier tax year. For the 2017-18 school year, they would report 2015 income details, instead of estimating 2016 income information.

“The federal government hopes that this change will make the admission application process and financial aid process as seamless as possible,” said Ann Benjamin, associate director of financial aid at North Central College. In theory, this would allow a student to apply for the school and send in the financial aid forms at the same time.

The federal government hopes that this change will make the admission application process and financial aid process as seamless as possible.

The current system has been a headache for colleges because when people would file the FAFSA on or after Jan. 1, they would usually estimate their income from the previous year, often months before their taxes were completed. Colleges then had to follow up with families to get accurate information. If families waited to file until they received final financial numbers, they would often find that grants had run out by then.

“The new process helps families because they can mark one more thing off their to-do list because they will have the information available when filling out the FAFSA,” Benjamin said. The only downside, she said, is that current college students might not realize the FAFSA date has changed and might file too late to get grants.

Financial Aid Packages

It remains to be seen if the earlier financial aid filing opportunity will prompt schools to send out students’ financial aid packages earlier, Benjamin said. If it does, then students might get a financial aid package notice in January instead of February and have an extra month to decide on the right school before the May 1 decision deadline.

That could spur more negotiation with college financial aid offices.

Benjamin suggests that families apply early so they can get financial aid packages earlier and have more time to discuss the situation with the financial aid office.

“We review everything on a very individual basis,” Benjamin said. “We know there are sometimes circumstances not reflected on the FAFSA. We try to be sensitive and fair, listening to each individual’s situation and make a good decision based on an individual family’s circumstances.”

Getting Started with financial aid

• Financial aid consultants aren’t needed: “We strongly discourage that kind of activity at North Central. The FAFSA is pretty straightforward and you can find out about the process through high school guidance counselors and your own research,” said Benjamin.

Learn the costs now: Every school is required by the federal government to have a financial aid calculator on its website to provide a ballpark figure of how much costs might be, according to Benjamin. That can help families decide which schools are financially realistic.

• Build a relationship with the admission counselor and/or financial aid office: “When you have a point of contact to help you work through the process it’s a lot less daunting,” Benjamin said. That relationship can help a student stay top-of-mind for scholarships and other opportunities.