At some point, most of us say, I wish I knew then what I know now. That same sentiment holds true for some college students regarding the financial aid process. After learning about the financial aid process, some students look back and wish they made different decisions. Being better informed from the start changes how students approach their financial aid and funding options.
Here are five things students wish they knew about the financial aid process while planning for college.
1. It’s Never Too Early to Start Planning and Saving for College
College-bound students and their families often wait to think about the admissions process and financial aid options. Many times, they wait until the student’s junior or senior year of high school. However, students should research schools and possible career options early. Getting started in high school or junior high gives them an idea of which schools are the best fit. Heather, a junior in college, said she drastically underestimated all the costs associated with her education. She didn’t know she needed to rely on student loans as much as she did. Even if you expect a scholarship, keep in mind the total costs you and your family may incur. These costs can have an impact on your long-term planning and financing.
2. 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.
3. You Don’t Have to Figure It All Out on Your Own
The financial aid process can often be confusing to first-time students. Rather than trying to do it all on your own, you can find help. Your high school counselors are great resources. If you have a college or university nearby, they may offer free FAFSA workshops or presentations. They can also help you understand the financial aid process better. If you speak with your high school counselor or someone from a financial aid office, don’t be afraid to ask questions so you’ll be certain 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 need to know. Federal Student Aid at the U.S. Department of Education has a FAFSA4caster that you can use to understand your options for paying for college.
4. You Don’t Have to Accept the Full Loan Amount on Your Award Letter
Once your financial aid application is finalized, your financial aid office sends you an award letter. Your award letter may show different types of financial aid, such as scholarships, grants, and student loans. Colleges usually provide award packages to cover your entire cost of attendance (COA). Your COA includes tuition, books, supplies, housing, etc. However, only borrow what you need, even if you were offered a higher amount. You don’t need to accept the full amount awarded.
Another college student said she assumed she should take the amount offered. At first, she thought the extra money could be a cushion if needed. She admitted she spent frivolously on things she really didn’t need. She forgot her loan was unsubsidized. That means interest accrued on her loan while she was in school. Student loans are a great resource to help pay for school as long as you understand the terms and conditions and only borrow what you need.
5. 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, you still need to complete the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for student loans and college work study. Some programs (such as unsubsidized student loans) are not need-based and do not have an income limitation. Also, the FAFSA is free to complete, and 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.