The burden of paying for college is a source of stress for many students and their parents as the cost of tuition continues to climb at a staggering rate of 8% per year.
The College Board reports the average yearly cost of a private four-year college is $42,419 – up 60% from 10 years ago. The average yearly cost of a public four-year college is $18,943, a 78 percent increase over the same period.
While a significant source of college funding comes from parents income and savings (FinAid.org estimates parents should expect to pay at least half to two-thirds of their children’s college costs), some college students rely on financial aid from the government, colleges and private scholarships to cover the rest of their college costs.
Filling out the FAFSA
To help facilitate a college education, students and their parents are encouraged to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) during Financial Aid Awareness Month in February. The U.S. Department of Education provides more than $150 billion in grants, loans, and work-study funds each year to help students pay for college.
The FAFSA is used to determine the amount of federal and state aid a family will receive – and many colleges use the form to calculate how much additional need-based aid they provide. The FAFSA is also used by many colleges to determine merit-based aid.
In his recent article “Is There an Income Limit for Financial Aid?,” Scott Weingold, Co-Founder/Managing Director of College Planning Network says, “You would be hard-pressed to find a parent who did not want to receive some sort of college aid for their children.”
A recent Sallie Mae survey revealed that 16% of high-income families received an average of $6,643 in grants last year.
Yet, many families don’t bother filling out the FAFSA thinking they won’t qualify because their income is too high. Weingold says every single family with college students should fill out the FAFSA every single year, here’s why.
Changes in financial circumstances: Weingold says that many families should go through the process of filling out the FAFSA each year as “financial circumstances may change, not to mention that you could miss out on financial aid in a subsequent year when there is one or more siblings enrolled in college at the same time.”
Need-based/Merit-based: Most colleges have two “pots” of money to provide to students: need-based aid and merit aid. While most financial aid is awarded on the basis of need, there are exceptions. Weingold says even if a student doesn’t have a high level of financial need, many colleges will award merit-based aid – measured by class rank, GPA and SAT scores, athletic talent and other abilities. However, some schools won’t give out merit-based aid without going through the FAFSA process. “In fact, you can’t even get an unsubsidized Stafford loan without going through the process of filling out the FAFSA,” says Weingold.
Interest aid: “Oftentimes, just by going through the process of filling out the FAFSA and showing interest, a college will throw some money your way,” says Weingold. Also, Weingold says colleges will offer money if they’re interested in a student – via reduced tuition costs, grants and scholarships. While completion of the FAFSA isn’t a requirement for college admission, it can certainly help get you some money towards your education – as every bit helps.
Roadmap Your College Preparation
Weingold says there is an overall roadmap he recommends students follow to give them the best chance of getting into their chosen college, while also getting the aid they want. “Ideally, this 4-phase process should start your freshman or sophomore year.”
Plan: The student really needs to be laser-focused in figuring out what they want to do – where they want to go – what makes them tick – and what their interests are. Weingold says the reason students need to do this early-on is because currently, 60% of college students are taking six years to get an undergraduate degree – costing families more money for an education. Once a student narrows their focus, the second phase begins.
Package and Prep: How do you make yourself stand out? How do you make it that your ideal school not only wants you but wants to give you money? Weingold says the best way to package yourself is through boosting test scores, writing a solid essay, participating in extracurricular activities that stand out. “You want to position yourself so the college notices you, really wants you and makes an offer.”
Pay/Aid: Once the offer is made, then it’s time to navigate the aid process in order to get the most aid from the school. Weingold explains that “successfully steering that aid process, making sure the student goes through the lines of aid and meets the deadlines is important in this stage.”
Peace-of-mind: Once you get through the first three, how are you going to pay for college without sacrificing your financial goals? Weingold says this is where it really gets down to the specifics of the family and if anything more can be done to help their situation and create a cash-flow strategy to try to make it more affordable.
Weingold says starting the process early is vital because funding college is a huge balancing act for both students and parents – the earlier you start the process, the more efficient and less costly it will be. The FAFSA form is available online at https://fafsa.ed.gov/.
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