If you have any concerns at all about paying for college, you should fill out a FAFSA and apply for need-based financial aid. Even the colleges themselves will give you the same advice.
Unfortunately, lots of families worry that the simple act of applying for financial aid is like painting a scarlet dollar sign on a student’s application for admission, that their kid will somehow be punished by the admissions office just because his parents had the audacity to ask to be considered for aid. Some of those families worry the college will see their student as a potential financial burden (those families would rather hide that financial need, let the kid get admitted, and figure out the money later). More financially comfortable families sometimes worry they’ll look greedy for asking and that it will carry admissions ramifications.
Whatever the cause for the concern, it’s totally unnecessary. Here’s why.
1. If you receive need-based financial aid from a particular college, it means that you have adequately demonstrated to them and to the government that you would be unable to reasonably afford the tuition without financial assistance. Even if the college could penalize an applicant because of that need (which they won’t), what difference would it make? That offer of admission will be meaningless if you can’t afford to pay for it and you never bothered to apply for aid.
2. On the other hand, if a college decides you don’t qualify for aid, they’ll just decline to offer you any money. They don’t make value judgments or take punitive measures to punish a family for asking. Bill Gates could fill out the FAFSA when his kids apply to college, and it would have absolutely no negative bearing on those kids’ chances of admission (the fact that their last name is Gates would make a huge difference, but that’s a different blog entry).
3. It’s the job of the admissions office to determine who they want in the freshman class based on a host of other things that have nothing to do with finances. Even at colleges that are not need-blind (where admissions officers are aware of your financial need), finances are far from the forefront of their evaluation.
Unfortunately, this is one of those concerns that some families have a hard time letting go of to the point that they’ll argue about it…
• ”But not all colleges are need blind. Some of them DO know if you’re applying for aid!”
• “I heard that full-pay families have a better chance of getting in.”
• “I read that kids who don’t need financial aid get taken off the wait lists first.”
To every one of those concerns, I’d simply ask them:
Can you afford to comfortably send your student to this college without any financial help?
If the answer is “No,” every other possible concern about applying for aid is moot and you should get to work on your FAFSA.