At some point in time, most of us have said, “I wish I knew then what I know now.” That same sentiment holds true for some college students regarding financial aid. After navigating the financial aid process and learning a thing or two, it’s not uncommon for college students to look back and wish they had either been better informed or made different decisions when it came to how they approached their financial aid and funding options.
Here are five common things college students wish they had known about financial aid when they were still in high school and planning for college.
- It’s Never Too Early to Start Planning and Saving for College
College-bound students and their families often don’t think about the admissions process or financial aid options until the student’s junior or senior year of high school. However, it’s a good idea to start researching schools and possible career options early in high school and even in junior high to start getting an idea of which schools are the best fit academically and financially. When interviewed, Heather, a junior in college, said she had drastically underestimated all of the costs and didn’t know she would have to rely on student loans as much as she did. Although you may be hoping for a scholarship, you also need to be aware of what costs you and your family may have to incur, and what that means for your long-term planning and financing.
- Know Your Deadlines and Don’t Miss Them
Braxton is in his freshman year and says he missed out on some state grant money because he waited too long to complete his FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). He said if he’d been more aware of his state deadline, he would have applied sooner and likely received money from his state grant program. He also said there were some scholarships that had very early deadlines that he missed. It takes some organization and research to be sure you know all the relevant deadlines for various scholarship and grant programs.
- You Don’t Have to Figure It All Out on Your Own
Financial aid can often be confusing to first-time college students. Rather than trying to do it all on your own and guessing at what you need to do, you can find help. Your high school counselors are great resources to get you started on the right path. If you have a college or university nearby, they may offer free workshops or presentations to help you with the FAFSA as well as simply understanding the financial aid process better. If you are speaking with your high school counselor or someone from a college financial aid office, don’t be afraid to ask questions so you’ll be certain that you know what you need to do. Although you’ll be doing your first FAFSA as early as October of your senior year, it’s never too early to begin learning everything you’ll need to know to be well prepared. Federal Student Aid at the U.S. Department of Education has provided a FAFSA4caster that you can use to understand your options for paying for college.
- You Don’t Have to Accept the Full Loan Amount on Your Award Letter
Your college financial aid office will provide you with an award letter once your financial aid application has been processed and finalized. Your award letter may show different types of financial aid, such as scholarships, grants, and student loans. Colleges will usually provide you with an award package that can cover your entire cost of attendance or COA. Your COA includes such things as tuition, fees, books, supplies, housing costs, etc. However, you should only borrow what you need, even if you have been offered a higher amount. You are not required to accept the full amount of the loan that’s been awarded. Another college student, Brylee said that she just assumed she was supposed to take what was offered. At first, she thought she’d just have that extra money as a cushion if she needed it. However, she said she was embarrassed to admit she wound up being careless with the money and spent it frivolously on things she really didn’t need. She also forgot that her loan was an unsubsidized loan, meaning that interest was accruing on her loan while she was in school – even though she wasn’t required to make any payments until she graduated or finished attending school. Student loans can be a great resource to help pay for school, just make sure you understand all the terms and conditions and only borrow what you need.
- Don’t Assume You Won’t Qualify for Financial Aid and Skip Completing the FAFSA
Some students and families believe that their income may be too high to qualify for any type of financial aid and simply do not complete the FAFSA. Although you may not qualify for grants, the FAFSA is still needed to determine your eligibility for student loans and college work study. Some programs, such as unsubsidized student loans, are not need-based and therefore do not have an income limitation. Also, the FAFSA is free to complete and you may be surprised that you could qualify for some other types of aid. One thing families forget is that if they happen to have a higher income, they may also have multiple children attending college, which is a big factor in determining financial aid eligibility. Factors such as your family income, household size, and the number in your family attending college all help determine your financial aid eligibility.
By planning ahead and thinking about the cost of college early, many of these common scenarios can be avoided. By starting your planning early, you can avoid the “I wish I knew then what I know now” feeling down the road.