When it comes to paying for a college education, “You are consuming a product,” says Gary Carpenter, executive director of the National College Advocacy Group, an organization that helps families plan for college. “And as a consumer you have to make a wise decision about what the best value is for the amount of dollars you’re going to pay.”
In today’s challenging economy, families must be particularly proactive to bring the costs down as much as possible. As the Burks family discovered, you don’t have to settle for the first financial aid offer you get. Here’s how to make your case for a larger college financial aid package for your student.
Tackling the Basics
In order to be considered for a financial aid award, a family must fill out a couple of forms. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid , or FAFSA, filed with the U.S. Department of Education, is used to calculate the amount of federally funded financial assistance for which your child is eligible. The FAFSA collects information about your income and financial situation, which determines your expected family contribution, or how much your family can afford to pay. The PROFILE, an application of the CollegeBoard, is used to calculate your child’s eligibility for institutional financial assistance at private colleges and universities, also by coming up with an expected family contribution, though the CollegeBoard uses a formula that’s different from the federal government’s. In both cases, the expected family contribution is subtracted from the amount of a college’s tuition to come up with a family’s aid eligibility. The FAFSA must be completed after Jan. 1, while the PROFILE can be completed for the 2012–2013 school year as early as Oct. 1, 2011.
Once these forms are completed and your child’s college applications have been submitted, he or she will begin receiving acceptance letters in the spring, along with award letters outlining the financial assistance the schools are willing to offer, says Carpenter. Students who choose early decision get access to a larger pool of aid. The aid can come from scholarships, grants, and loans. “The schools will look at the financial need and the merit of the student,” Carpenter says. Need-based assistance will depend on family income, while merit awards could recognize a child in areas such as academics, athletics, or music. Families can accept the entire aid package, a portion of it, or none of it, Carpenter adds.