Ask These Important Financial Aid Questions
As college financial aid award letters roll in, families should ask questions in order to gauge the cost of attendance, prepare for financial hurdles and score more financial aid.
Last summer, financial aid advisers weighed in on the must-ask questions for parents. This list has been expanded for spring decision season. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Is there alternative financial aid available?
"Don't be afraid to ask for how to get more financial help and think outside of the box. Ask, 'Are there any service-based opportunities for me to get more money from your school?' Some schools offer community service scholarships, leadership scholarships or have alternative types of funding. You don't know about other opportunities until you start diving in," says Breanne Simkin, director of student financial services at Bloomfield College.
How much will my student pay versus how much did they initially borrow?
"With real estate loans and credit card debt, it's a requirement to know what you're getting yourself into. Student loan disclosures don't contain that information. There are calculators online and things like that, but it's not presented to students automatically. It's something that they'd have to think about to ask," says Gayle Covington, senior assistant director of financial aid at Longwood University.
How might I decrease my student's loan indebtedness?
"Make sure you borrow the amount needed versus what is offered. Loans are offered at the maximum level, and students can feel compelled to borrow the maximum amount. Look at opportunities to reduce loan debt while enrolled.
"Students can work on campus as a federal work-study or college work-study student. They can look for scholarship opportunities both on and off campus. They may consider becoming a resident dorm adviser. Students can work in summer and save money towards their bills for the upcoming year. Such efforts on their part can assist in the reduction of loan debt," says Robert Muhammad, director of financial aid at Winston-Salem State University.
Is there additional financial aid available?
"That question opens up so many more doors. I'm like JetBlue. I'm going to overbook. I might have 6,000 applications for admission. I'll accept 3,000 and only want to enroll 1,100. When I go in and cancel aid for students who decide not to come here, I have the ability to go back and award more money. Making that call and having that conversation is critical. If you don't make that call, I assume you're OK with your award," Daniel M. Tramuta, associate vice president for enrollment services at SUNY--Fredonia, told U.S. News.
What happens if my financial circumstances change while my child is in school?
"Families aren't only making a financial commitment for the first year, but three years after that. It's good to know how a university will assist you if something bad happens, say, there's a loss of employment or death in the family.
"Some schools will say, 'That's the award we've given you and there's nothing we can do about it.' Some schools will give you a period of time to appeal. We always have the door open during the four years that a student is at Washington and Lee and will re-evaluate financial aid from that time forward," James Kaster, director of financial aid at Washington and Lee University, told U.S. News.
Do my taxes need to be submitted before I complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid?
"I don't care what your neighbor told you, you can file the FAFSA without having your taxes completed. A lot of parents don't understand that and they miss school deadlines and miss out on potential financial aid. You can use last year's taxes or your W-2. Actually, the FAFSA has an answer that says, 'Will File,' letting everyone know that you're doing this to meet a deadline," Angela Hovatter, director of financial aid at Frostburg State University, told U.S. News.
How many years is my child's program of study, and what will it take to graduate in four years versus five, six or seven?
"Obviously the fewer years it takes, the less borrowing, fewer tuition increases and fewer potential years of lost wages from not graduating and getting a job. Students often take all the loan funds offered to them, not realizing if they take longer to graduate they may run out of loan borrowing potential not only annually but on an aggregate level. They need to have a plan from the outset," Lori Vedder, director of the office of financial aid at University of Michigan--Flint, told U.S. News.
What happens to my child's financial aid after the first year?
"Go through your financial aid award line by line and ask, "What could stay the same? What could increase? What could decrease?" Someone might have a one-time-only award. If a school is giving you a scholarship or grant, ask, "What do I have to do to keep it? Maintain a certain GPA? Stay in a major?" Kathleen Brown at director of financial aid, Saint Mary's College, told U.S. News.
What percentage of graduates leave without debt?
"Often the media, when reporting average student debt, forget to report the percent of students graduating without debt. Generally a higher percent of graduating seniors without student debt means a more affordable institution. I'm not saying it's the highest priority, but it's certainly one of those points of information you should be aware of when considering your options," Mark Warner, assistant provost for enrollment management and director of student financial aid at University of Iowa, told U.S. News.
What is the whole cost of your university?
"Many times cost is only communicated in terms of tuition and housing. The full cost of attendance is actually what it costs for a student to eat, live, sleep, breathe and attend the college or university for one academic year at a time.
"Simply put, families need to seek information and discuss what their student will actually spend, not just on tuition and housing, but on items including food, miscellaneous and personal expenses, all transportation expenses, campus and course fees, all books, supplies and equipment for all courses in order to be much more financially prepared for the college and university experience," Ben Kohl, assistant director for the office of student financial assistance at Kansas State University, told U.S. News.
Find Out More About Paying for College
Your financial aid adviser is just one resource when it comes to determining the affordability of a college.