Run towards it

Financial Aid expert Mark Kantrowitz shares a timely and very helpful piece, “What is the FASFA?” The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the starting point for accessing need-based aid. It’s the single most important step to acquiring the financial assistance you need. For students applying to college this fall, the form goes live on October 1. And the earlier you file it, the better—as Kantrowitz points out, “Students who file the FAFSA during the first three months tend to get double the grants, on average, of students who file the FAFSA later.”

And yet many families, including some of those most worried about their ability to pay for college, will put off filing the form. Some families will resist filing it at all.

Lesson #18 of my final 31 posts: Sometimes it’s best to run towards what intimidates us.

There are a lot of reasons why a family might not file the FAFSA, ranging from a lack of knowledge, to a lack of opportunity, to a lack of access to good advice. But in many cases, the unspoken reason is that they’re intimidated.

The form seems complex. The questions are invasive and prying. The process by which your need for aid is determined can feel mysterious. Discussions of money (and our lack of it) can feel uncomfortable. The price of making a mistake feels too costly.

But none of those fears change this simple fact: You will not get financial aid for college if you don’t file the FAFSA.

If you’re feeling some FAFSA intimidation, it’s time to run towards it.

When I first started writing this blog, I knew a lot about college admissions, but almost nothing about financial aid. At the time, the families who hired us at Collegewise weren’t looking to us for financial advice. If they needed assistance with financial aid, we would refer them to an outside expert. If a high school invited me to speak to their families about how to pay for college, I declined. I claimed that financial aid was not my expertise, which was true. But it was also true that I was just too intimidated by the topic to even attempt to learn about it.

That all changed when the recession hit in 2009. It quickly became clear that we would be doing our families and our business a disservice if we didn’t provide at least some guidance in this area. So I ran towards the intimidation. I read a fantastic book on the topic. I enrolled in a financial aid and scholarships course in UCLA’s college counselor certification program. I pored over all of the aforementioned free information from Kantrowitz. And because the best way to learn something well is to teach it to someone else, I prepared a 90-minute “Paying for College” seminar for our Collegewise families. In just three months, I went from being intimidated by financial aid to being comfortable teaching it to audiences. The transformation was professionally fulfilling and personally thrilling. I still don’t profess to be an expert in financial aid. But I’m conversant in the topic, and knowledgeable enough to inform the admissions advice I dole out here regularly. Today, I can say the same about our counselors at Collegewise.

Sometimes our fears are founded. I’m not suggesting that everyone should necessarily run out and go cliff jumping.

But often, the thing that’s so intimidating feels that way because we know we need to take some action towards it. It’s that collision of unfamiliarity and the need to address it that causes the stress. I’ve never felt intimidated by the idea of walking a tightrope because I can’t imagine a circumstance where I would ever need to do that. But the financial aid process was intimidating because deep down I knew it was something I shouldn’t keep avoiding. That experience taught me to recognize that feeling, and when it happens, to try to run towards it.

Financial aid is awarded on a year-by-year basis, which means that a student will likely submit the form four times during college. Unless you can painlessly write a check covering the full cost of attendance (tuition, room and board, travel and living expenses) for college next year, there is no logical reason not to file the FAFSA.

Don’t make excuses. Don’t claim that you’ll never qualify or will never get enough. And please don’t listen to people who tell you that applying for financial aid will hurt your chances of admission (more on that here). The truth is that you have nothing to lose but the time you spend filling out the form. And what you have to gain could be the aid you need to attend the college of your choice.

The FAFSA goes live on October 1, and the process to file it might well feel unfamiliar. That’s a recipe for intimidation. But if that feeling comes over you, the best thing you can do is run towards it.