As high school seniors begin to apply for college this fall, counselors say parents should get the financial aid ball rolling. Preparing to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the place to start.
Parents can visit the FAFSA website at www.fafsa.ed.gov to begin familiarizing themselves with the information they will need to provide. “Filling out the FAFSA is the first step,” says Haley Chitty, director of communications for the National Association of Student Financial Aid. “A lot of times if you’re intending to go to a certain school they’ll use the FAFSA information to determine eligibility for scholarships and state programs.”The FAFSA can be submitted as early as Jan. 1 of the year the student plans to attend college.
Most colleges require a FAFSA submission by the end of April at the latest to ensure eligibility for state grants. “The biggest mistake students can make is not meet the university’s deadline,” says Adriana Antongiorgi, financial aid assistant at Lehigh University. “Deadlines are crucial.”
Rutgers University-Camden requires the FAFSA by March 15 while Temple University gives priority to students whose parents complete it by March 1.
Recent Changes in Federal Aid
On the FAFSA, parents must list income information, savings, assets and tax paid from the previous year. The FAFSA will determine the Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), which is the amount the federal government assumes the family can afford to pay for college. This amount is then compared to the cost of the colleges the student lists on the form. The difference, for each college, is the amount of financial aid for which the student is eligible.
Colleges often use this figure to determine scholarship offers, and families can use it to determine their eligibility for student loans. Often those loans cover the difference between what the family can afford and the school’s net cost after scholarships, grants and work-study are factored in.
“In the past there were two types of federal loan programs,” says Chitty. “There was one where banks and private entities would make the loans to students and parents which were then guaranteed by the federal government and one where the federal government would make loans directly to students and parents. Recent legislation eliminated the program where private entities gave the loans.”
All loans determined by the FAFSA will now come from the Direct Loan Program, under which the federal government lends directly to students. Once a student decides he needs a loan, he must notify his college’s financial aid office and complete an electronic Master Promissory Note (eMPN).
“The most significant difference in this new program is that there is more money being spent on financial aid than ever before,” says Chitty.
Meeting the Full Cost
After completing the FAFSA, parents and students should brainstorm other ways to pay for college. Claudia Gard, a college counselor at Masterman High School in Philadelphia, says parents need to be realistic about cost.
“Some schools do offer free rides but 99 percent of the time families will have to come up with something,” says Gard. “The reality is if there is family need, then a lot of schools are working hard to meet that need.”
One school working hard to fill the gap is the University of Delaware. “We understand that we are in the midst of a major recession and our financial commitment to Delawareans has made a huge difference for a lot of families here,” says Lou Hirsch, director of admissions at the University of Delaware. “If you’re a Delaware resident we will meet your full financial need. There will be some loans but also work-study and grant money.”
“It’s becoming more and more popular for parents and students to consider a state university or a two-year school to begin the process,” says Gard. “Looking at options that can make college more affordable is a big concern.”
Aid & Scholarships
For students considering a four-year university Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania offer need-based grants and merit-based grants distributed through the FAFSA. Each state also offers a few private scholarships. New Jersey, for example, offers two Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarships (STAR).
Cheryl Browning, the Philadelphia regional director for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, suggests that by November students “should be doing their admissions applications, since it’s good to have them in before Christmas. But they should also be looking for private sources of financial aid.”
There are thousands of online resources available that list national, regional and local scholarships, some of which don’t require an essay. However, Gard reminds Masterman students, “It’s expensive to go to college. You have to work at it. This isn’t a beauty contest; you have to do some work.”
“A lot of our programs require students to write an essay,” admits Maureen Laffey, director of the Delaware Higher Education Commission. “If they start early in researching various scholarships that are available then they’ll have time to sit down and write a good-quality essay.”
Delaware provides 23 state-sponsored financial aid programs. For example, one supports state residents seeking a major that is unavailable at a Delaware public college. Another opportunity is the Student Excellence Equals Degree Program (SEED), which provides tuition for full-time students enrolled in the two-year programs at either Delaware Technical & Community College or the University of Delaware.
Preparing your child for a smooth transition from high school to college begins with a conversation about college cost. By taking advantage of every resource available high school students will better understand both the high cost of college and the many ways in which they can lower it. Families should “look at the cost of the college and not be turned off by it,” says Gard. “You’ll never know what kind of merit aid or financial aid you might be getting.”
Lauren Macaluso is a MetroKids intern and journalism student at Temple University.