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.

The cost of just applying

I’ve made the hyperbolic joke in front of audiences that the result will be predictable if you apply to Harvard with a 1.0 GPA, an SAT score of -120, and a misdemeanor conviction for attempting to flood your school hallways with lizard spit. Harvard will deny you, but they will happily accept your $75 application fee to do so.

It’s not a knock against Harvard in particular. I’ve said it to make the point that most colleges aren’t in the business of dissuading students from applying. It’s one of the many challenges of composing a college list. At all but your most slam-dunks of collegiate sure things, most students apply (and pay the fee) without knowing with any certainty whether or not they will be accepted.

Unfortunately, the cost of doing so can add up. The average fee to submit a completed application to one college is around $50, with some schools charging two or even three times as much. It doesn’t take a math major to calculate just how fast those fees can add up depending on the number of schools.

But there’s good news on this front.

First, many colleges will waive the application fee for students who demonstrate financial need. The College Board maintains a list of schools here that will consider doing so.

The National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) offers information on fee waiver eligibility, requirements, and even a form to use when applying, all of which can be found here.

And here are’s tips to reduce the cost of applying, as well as a list of schools that do not charge any application fees.

Round out the dish

One of the factors that increases anxiety around how to pay for college is this notion that the best way to get financial assistance is to find, apply for, and win scholarships. But that’s not where you’re most likely to find a financial boost.

When people talk about applying for scholarships, they’re usually referring to outside or private scholarships. These are little-known awards from private companies, foundations, community organizations, churches and other benefactors. But while there is money to be had from those sources, the largest percentage of scholarships comes from those provided by federal and state governments and from the colleges themselves. And the best way to access those funds is to apply to colleges where you have a very strong chance of admission, and to file the appropriate financial aid forms (which begins—and for many colleges, ends—with the FAFSA).

There’s nothing wrong with applying for outside scholarships. Every dollar in scholarships you win helps, and the more concerned you are about how to pay for college, the more important it is to seek all viable sources of assistance.

But those scholarships account for a very small slice of the overall financial aid pie. To focus all your efforts there would be like investing all your dessert making effort on the whipped cream. Whipped cream makes an excellent addition, but it can’t carry a dish alone.

Start by finding the colleges where your chances of admission are strong to certain. Then have your counselor vet the list. Follow each college’s instructions on applying for available aid. Submit your forms well before the deadlines. And throughout the process, apply for outside scholarships to round out the financial aid dish.

Financial aid in 500 words

Mark Kantrowitz’s “How to Apply for Financial Aid for College” somehow manages to be both appropriately comprehensive and refreshingly brief. The piece even includes helpful links to the various forms and resources, ultimately saving readers a lot of time they’d otherwise spend searching the web for information. For any parent of a college-bound student, this one is worth reading and bookmarking for future frequent access.

Intuition and assumptions

Mark Kantrowitz’s latest post, “Is there an Income Cutoff on Eligibility for Financial Aid?,” contains some great information and advice, though I wish he’d chosen a different title. The question “Do we have too much money to qualify for financial aid?” can induce some understandable eye-rolling. But the article is actually about the inherent risks of relying on intuition or assumptions rather than applying and allowing the financial aid officers to do their jobs. And for families whose financial concerns are far greater than having too much money to qualify for aid, I think they’ll find the information will leave them encouraged about their own aid eligibility, but also careful not to allow their own intuition or assumptions to get in the way of the aid they need.

Collegewise scholarships for the class of 2020

Last year, I announced that we were launching the Collegewise Scholarship Program to formally assist under-resourced students with their college application process. We were thrilled with the results. 27 students joined the program. Together with their assigned Collegewise counselors, they built their college lists, worked on their essays, and presented their very best applications for admissions consideration. In addition to being admitted to a variety of schools, from the University of Chicago, Birmingham-Southern, and UC San Diego to Hood College and Duke, four of those students became finalists for QuestBridge’s National College Match, a program that helps outstanding low-income high school seniors gain admission and full four-year scholarships to the nation’s most selective colleges.

I’m excited to announce that the application for the Collegewise Scholarship Program for the class of 2020 is now open. These scholarships are intended for U.S. students (including DACA students) with limited means who will be seniors this fall and would benefit from working one-on-one with a college counselor. The application deadline is June 16, and we’re evaluating the applications on a rolling basis. Much as rolling deadlines work in college admissions, there’s no guarantee that space will continue to be available right up to the deadline. So there’s an admissions benefit to applying early.

Counselors, if you work with a student who fits the above criteria, I hope you’ll encourage them to apply. All of the details and the application can be found here.

A guide to basic financial aid terms

It’s helpful for students just starting their college search to understand how financial aid works. Without that knowledge, you risk making faulty assumptions about which schools you can and cannot afford, how much aid will be available, and when to apply for it. I always appreciate when a knowledgeable source makes a complex idea easier to understand, and that’s what Sean Ashbury, admissions officer at Tufts, has done with his blog post, “An Admissions Officer’s Guide to Financial Aid.” Just grasping the ten terms he defines so clearly will make you a savvier college shopper.

Negotiating a better financial aid package

Many families have heard that the financial aid package they receive from a college may not, in fact, be the school’s final offer–that they can appeal to the financial aid office for a more favorable package. But what’s a lot less clear is exactly how a family should go about making that appeal. What factors are considered? How do you make an effective case? What can you do to improve your chances of getting the package you need to attend the college you want?

Industry-recognized expert Mark Kantrowitz just released a new book, How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid: The Secrets to Negotiating a Better Financial Aid Offer…and Getting More Financial Aid in the First Place! I’ve not yet read the book, but if it’s anything at all like the hundreds of articles, interviews, and other informational resources Kantrowitz has participated in on the topic of college financing, you can expect that it will be full of expert, unbiased advice with no selfish angle other than to help families.

The description of the book makes it clear that it’s not a lesson in negotiation for families who have already received a generous package. The most successful appeals almost always come from a clear, compelling presentation that financial circumstances within the family necessitate more aid for the student to attend that college. And this book promises to help families in that situation make the most compelling case.

If you’d like a quick primer on this topic and Kantrowitz’s approach, here’s a 2015 Washington Post article, “How to Negotiate a better financial aid package.


The action of saving

Much of the prevailing advice about financial planning for college is easy to follow…provided you’re affluent. Deferring holiday bonuses, redirecting a portion of discretionary spending into savings, or even committing to saving “just $250 a month” is easy to do if you have that money. But it’s a lot harder for families who don’t have those resources and are facing financial pressures far more immediate or even concerning than accumulating college savings for the future.

It would be of little comfort to many families to learn that “Almost 1 in 10 working Americans earning $100,000 or more live paycheck to paycheck,” as referenced in this article, “How to Save for College When You’re Living Paycheck to Paycheck.” But you don’t need to make nearly that much to utilize the article’s tips or to benefit from the encouragement to save, no matter how small the amount.

The encouragement is important, because what’s meager to one person is too much for another. I’ve seen plenty of articles that point out how much you’ll have saved for college by setting aside “just $250 a month.” But this is the first one that lauds efforts to save just $25—or even less—per month. And the action of saving adds up no matter the amount saved.