Figuring out College Financial Aid
By Belinda Leon, Ed.D.
Colleges are beginning to respond to students in regards to acceptance for the fall semester and with an acceptance letter comes a financial aid award letter too. This is when parents and student need to have a serious discussion about which college is the best fit academically, socially, and financially.
Colleges will publish on their website their “Cost of Attendance” but do not confuse this number with tuition cost. Cost of Attendance includes tuition, housing, meal plans, textbooks, transportation, and other incidentals – some of which are estimated costs. Not all of these costs will apply to your student! Also keep in mind that costs are based on either an academic year that runs from approximately August through May or a semester which runs 12-15 weeks. There are two semesters per academic year.
If you submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you should have gotten a response back on how much financial aid has been awarded to your student. The form opened on October 1st, but if you still haven’t completed this form- HURRY, you have until June 30th! The financial aid that is awarded via the FAFSA includes Federal, State, and in some cases the college’s own funding. Scholarships from private organizations are not included on the FAFSA, but some organizations may ask you to demonstrate financial need via your FAFSA data. The information you submit on the FAFSA is in large part based on the income tax return parents or the student submit, but it is possible to complete the FAFSA if a tax return has not been filed.
Federal financial aid includes different grants but the main one is the Pell Grant. This is money you do NOT have to pay back – it is a gift. FASFA will also determine if you qualify for a student loan. You are not required to accept this loan as it is a CHOICE. Loans do have to be paid back. Subsidized loans are offered to those who have financial need and interest on the loan is paid by the government while you are in school. Unsubsidized loans are offered to those who do not have a financial need and interest on the loan is paid by you while in school. There is also a PLUS loan that could be offered to parents to help with the financial burden of supporting students in college.
The FAFSA may also be used to determine if the student qualifies for State Financial Aid. In Florida, as in some other states, there is a separate form in addition to the FAFSA that is used to determine State Financial Aid. State Financial Aid includes grants (free money) but also the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship.
Colleges are also able to offer their own scholarships which could be based on financial need as evident on the FAFSA or it could be based on academic achievements through Merit Scholarships. Scholarships have specific requirements that need to be met, but if met – this is also money that does not need to be paid back as you apply it toward college costs. Private scholarships are offered by numerous organizations and they can also be academic or merit based, but there are also many awarded for sports, hobbies, ethnic background, religion, or even a contest. Finding these scholarships and applying for them are completely the responsibility of the student.
If the financial aid you are being awarded is not enough, do not despair. Call the financial aid advisor at the college and speak to them regarding your challenges. The student should express their strong desire to attend this particular college, but that they need more grants or scholarships to meet the cost. Perhaps there was a special financial circumstance in the family that could not be reflected in the FAFSA? Explain to the financial aid advisor- they can make that adjustment. Also, there is still time to apply for scholarships. Some may only be $500, but some are in the thousands! $500 may not seem much, but those $500 could cover textbooks in one semester.
Financial Aid information, applications, and award letters can be intimidating. However, don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask for more money. Take each entry on your award letter line by line and read the requirements carefully. The job of your financial aid advisor is to help you pay for school – use their services.