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Financial Aid 101: What Families Need to Know Before They Apply

By Martial Frindethie

Many of our clients have asked us about the daunting financial aid application process that they and their children and grandchildren face. They question whether they should apply for financial aid and what to expect if they do. Some think they make too much money to qualify for help. Others find the process distasteful. Several have mentioned that they don’t want to take money away from “more deserving” students who may need the aid more than their family member. They aren’t alone. Most families find the financial aid process overwhelming.

While I understand the stigma around financial aid, I believe that families facing the increasingly exorbitant tuition costs for higher education should apply for financial aid as early as possible, regardless of your financial status. And even before that process begins, The Millstone Evans Group regularly uses a very effective tool with clients – the education software College Aid Pro. This tool helps families – parents and high school-aged kids working together – personalize the search process and find the right colleges for each student at the right price.

In my previous blog post, Four Things I Wish I Knew Before Applying to College, I noted that very few students end up paying the full tuition price advertised by the school. In fact, only 25% - 40% of undergraduate students in public universities end up paying the full price of a college education. Almost 90% of students at private colleges get some kind of financial aid, with the average discount being around 50% of the listed cost of attendance. The truth is that grants, work-study, loans, and scholarships help make college or career school affordable.

In this blog post, I cover three key questions you may have about financial aid – specifically around completing the important Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) - along with my suggestions on how to approach each. Our new college planning tool College Aid Pro helps show our clients the effects that filling out the FAFSA form has on their overall tuition costs.

  1. Why should my family apply for financial aid?

The better question is why wouldn’t you, especially given the enormous costs of higher education? You could be leaving money on the table by not applying and the truth is most students qualify for some sort of financial aid, even those considered to be in upper-middle class families. The only aid you’re guaranteed not to get is the aid you don’t apply for – or as the saying goes, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

It’s important to note that some colleges require applicants to submit a FAFSA form in order to be considered for merit scholarships. When you access the form online, you'll find information and tips aimed at helping parents and grandparents understand their role in their child’s or grandchild’s financial aid application. If you don’t think you’d qualify for need-based aid, there’s still a chance that you could be eligible for merit scholarships. Furthermore, a family’s financial circumstance is always subject to change due to unforeseen events. If for some reason you’re no longer able to pay the full cost of college, you’ll likely want to apply for financial aid. However, many colleges won’t consider you for financial aid in the future if you haven’t submitted a FAFSA form in the past.

  1. When should I apply for financial aid?

The FAFSA form is released on October 1 each year and must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. CT on June 30 of the following year. While this is the federal deadline for each academic year, never wait until the last minute to submit your FAFSA. Many states and colleges have their own deadlines by which you must submit the FAFSA form to be considered for their aid programs. You can start filling out the FAFSA form now on the website.

Once you’ve chosen a list of schools you want to apply to, I would submit your FAFSA form by the earliest financial aid deadline at those schools. There are also some private schools that require you to fill out other financial aid forms, like the College Board’s CSS Profile, in addition to the FAFSA form. Be sure to check with each school’s financial aid office to determine what is required. Many states and schools have limited funds, so it’s best to submit your FAFSA as early as possible to ensure you have the best chance of receiving student aid.

  1. What happens once I submit the FAFSA form?

Usually after you’ve submitted your FAFSA form, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) within three weeks. This document lists all the answers you’ve submitted to the questions on your FAFSA form. Keep in mind, the FAFSA form asks for financial information for both the parents and the students. Since we’re all human and mistakes can be made, or financial situations can change, this gives you a chance to correct or update information on your SAR. Submit those corrections/updates ASAP and be cognizant of specific deadlines schools may require for those submissions. In addition, and if you haven’t already, be sure to carefully fill out the applications for all the schools on your list. It’s critical that you pay very close attention to all deadlines.

Our team is always pleased to hear from clients who share with us the good news that their children or grandchildren have been accepted to college, The hassle and stigma behind applying for financial aid are minimal when compared to the potential reward of receiving financial assistance. Since college is one of a family’s largest expenses, why would you not want to lower the cost a bit?

If you find yourself still considering whether to apply for financial aid or If you would like to learn more about our team’s in-depth process in which we walk our clients through the cost of college and how to pay for it, please contact me – This kind of advice is something we offer our clients and I’d be pleased to explore what can be an extremely complicated process with you.

In the coming months, I’ll be sharing more blog posts on education savings plans and how families can evaluate options and plan ahead for tuition costs.