Navigating Financial Aid

Navigating Financial Aid

Navigating the financial aid process can be just as daunting and perplexing as choosing a college. But a school’s high price tag shouldn’t keep you from your bright future. Here are a few key pieces of information to help you through the process:


“The first thing students will want to do is get a handle on what types of schools they’re applying to,” says Michael Ellison, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst College. Students need to find out if the schools offer merit-based awards or need-based awards or a combination of the two. If the school uses a need based system Ellison encourages families to use some of the tuition exercises available online.


Students can use the “expected family contribution (EFC)” calculator at to help gauge how much tuition they may be expected to pay. 


Filing your FAFSA: To determine eligibility for federal aid, students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The form, which requires both student and parent financial information, can be accessed at beginning Jan. 1. Each school has its own deadline for when it must be completed. 


The award letter: Once you’ve been accepted to a school you will receive an “award letter” detailing how much aid the school will give you. Most letters compare cost of attendance and some even include books and transportation.  


The work-study factor: It’s not like a loan or scholarship. In fact, depending on the institution, most students will receive their work-study money as a paycheck once they find a university-sponsored job. “You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the institution so you know if work study will go directly toward your bill or if you will get a check” Ellison says. 


Appealing your award: If you think you financial aid package is inadequate, try appealing it. It’s important to have documentation of factors such as  medical expenses, a parent’s job loss, divorce, or separation to prove your financial shortfall. “Provide new information that we didn’t know about,” Ellison says. Check with your school’s financial aid office to find out how they handle this process.  


Still more aid:  If the appeals process does not work, make sure you maximize all federal loans before you head for the private loans. A Parent Loan (PLUS loan), can be taken out by parents if they are eligible, but if they’re rejected you will be eligible to max out your Stafford Loan. 


Private Loans: Once you’ve exhausted all your resources, private loans can be a last resort . Ellison recommends comparing fees, interest rates, and terms and conditions of different lenders. “A good rule of thumb,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, a financial aid resource guide, is to “not borrow for you entire education more than your expected starting salary after you graduate.” He says students who borrow more than that are more likely to go into an extended repayment. 


Scholarships: Scholarship are usually a blessing in the unsightly world of pricey education. But external scholarships awarded directly to your institution can mean