College financial aid and divorced parents

If you have questions about how college financial aid is determined for students with divorced parents, who's expected to pay for college, and what (if any) financial obligations fall to the stepparent, spend ten minutes on this page from finaaid.org and you'll probably get all your questions answered (for free). 

I have yet to find a more comprehensive, useful or cheaper website for information about how to pay for college.

Have questions about financial aid?

The folks at Finaid.org have a great FAQ section here. And in the "I can't believe it's free" department, they have a service called "Ask The Aid Advisor" in which over 100 financial aid administrators from across the country have volunteered to answer questions for free.  You fill out a form, submit your question, and get an email response within two weeks.  The site says they've already answered over 10,000 questions. 

Every college-bound student and parent who's concerned about paying for college should spend a weekend pouring over the information they give away for free at Finaid.org.  There's no shame in admitting that you're concerned about college finances and need help paying for it.  But with resources like this available to you, you can be as informed as possible and make sure you don't make mistakes. 

When considering college costs, evaluate the potential partnership

Parents, when you question whether a particular college is worth the money, remember that you’re evaluating a proposed partnership between the college and your student.  It’s like deciding whether to invest in two companies who’ve just announced they’re teaming up; you need to do your due diligence on both parties to decide if it’s a good investment.

Families should evaluate colleges.  Learn about the mission of the school, the majors offered, the class size, the focus on teaching, the academic and personal support, and lots of other categories that will impact your student’s experience.   

But a lot of parents forget to evaluate the other partner—the student.  A college can only do so much, and both parties need to work together for the partnership to succeed.  

If you have a student who’s been academically disengaged in high school and he wants to go to an out-of-state (and more expensive) university because he wants to be at a big school with good snowboarding, you’ve got some hard questions to ask.

Is your student going to be more academically engaged in college?  Will he put his hand up in class when he has questions and visit the free tutoring center when he needs even more help?  Is he going to meet with an academic advisor and look for a major that excites him? Will he take advantage of all the opportunities that are available to him while his in college?

If he doesn’t do those things, is it really fair to blame the college?

I’m not arguing that B and C students don’t deserve to go to the colleges they’re excited about.  Lots of formerly B and C students become A students in college.  But that happens when the partnership is a good fit and both parties do their part. 

College is expensive and parents have every right to question the value. But when you do, don’t just evaluate what the college proposes to do.  Think about your student, too, and evaluate what both parties propose to do together. 

You can find even more advice in our “Financial Aid and Scholarships” video.  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download. 

A financial aid assignment for parents

The “Parents” page on finaid.org covers everything from college savings plans, to maximizing your financial aid eligibility (legally), to negotiating financial aid offers from colleges.  And all of the information is free.

The financial aid process can be confusing and frustrating with so much unfamiliar terminology and so much riding on the process.  But finaid.org does just about the best job out there of breaking it down.

So here’s my suggested assignment for parents.  Unless you are confident that you can painlessly write checks for four year’s worth of college costs for each of your kids (some people can, but most can’t), spend an afternoon studying the “Parents” page and learning about the financial aid process.  Don’t be intimidated by it, and more importantly, don’t feel ashamed.  A lot of parents feel embarrassed about needing financial aid but I promise you that with the cost of a four-year college education now exeeding $150,000 at some schools, you have absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about in asking for help paying for it.

What does college really cost?

There's often a big difference between a college's tuition and what it actually costs to attend it. 

In addition to the tuition and fees, families will also need to pay for room and board, personal expenses, and travel.  That total annual cost is what colleges call the "COA" or "Cost of Attendance."  It's the number that will be used to determine whether or not your family receives any need based financial aid.  And that's a good thing.  When colleges are evaluating your ability to pay, you want them considering all of the costs you would incur.

The distinction between tuition and the COA is important.  Consider the University of Wisconsin Madison, for example.  According to their website, the tuition/fees for 2011/2012 is $9490.  But the COA is $22,330. 

So the COA, not just the tuition, is what families need to factor into your college budget and your college research.  Most colleges calculate the COA for you. Just visit the financial aid section of colleges' websites to find it. 

The FAFSA isn’t all that’s required for financial aid

Most colleges' deadlines to apply for financial aid will be in approximately the next month.  And every college bound senior who wants to be considered for financial aid should fill out the FAFSA.  In fact, if you haven't submitted it yet, you should do that as soon as possible.

But the FAFSA gets so much air time as the crucial first step in applying for aid that some families overlook other forms colleges can require in addition to the FAFSA, namely, the CSS Profile and the colleges' own, separate forms. 

Senior families, there is only one guaranteed, mistake-free way to make sure you file the correct forms–visit the financial aid section of each college's website and verify what they require.  That's your first step. 

Even colleges that share the Common Application for admission can have entirely different requirements to apply for financial aid.  Don't rely on word-of-mouth.  Don't even rely on a college guidebook.  Visit the sites individually and print up the pages that list the financial aid application requirements for each.

You can find even more advice in our “Financial Aid and Scholarships” video.  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download. 

More free financial aid advice

I posted last Friday about a series on The Choice blog where a financial aid expert was answering readers' questions.  He has since completed the series with four more installments, and this link will take you to a listing of all seven parts.

Topics he addresses include the best ways to save for college, the impact of a parents' divorce on financial aid eligibility, the viability of outside scholarships, and whether or not you can negotiate with a financial aid office. 

It's hard to imagine any parent of a college bound student not finding at least one question he answers that wouldn't be of interest to you. And I was impressed by how much free information he gives away.

Answers to your questions about financial aid for college

Are 529 plans really worth it?  Why should a family bother filling out the FAFSA if you know you won't qualify?  What colleges have "no loans" policies where any financial aid offered is always a grant, not a loan that needs to be paid back?

Mark Kantrowitz is a financial aid expert, author of Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, and the founder of both finaid.org and fastweb.com which are two of the very best–and FREE–sources of information for financial aid and scholarships.

This week he's been doing a three-part series on "The Choice" blog answering readers' questions about financial aid.  The questions they chose are some of the most commonly asked, and the answers are detailed and helpful.  It's worth taking a look if you're concerned at all about your family's ability to pay for college.  Here are the links for part I, part II and part III

 

Avoid this common FAFSA mistake

Any class of 2011 senior who wants to apply for college financial aid should now be completing the FAFSA form, availalbe here.  But here's a common mistake you can easily avoid. 

"You" and "Your" refers to the student, not the parent, unless the form specifically says otherwise. 

The FAFSA is written with the assumption that the student–not the parent–will be the one completing it.  But that's often not what happens.  Many parents fill out the FAFSA for their kids, which is fine, as financial aid is the one part of the college application process where I think it can be a good thing for parents to jump in and help or just take over completely.

So parents, if you're completing the FAFSA for your student, remember that the form wants your student's information (name, birth date, social security number, etc.) until you get to the section that specifically requests parent information. 

For senior families: This is the time to start the financial aid process

Most students will submit their applications for admission before applying for financial aid (so you actually apply to college without necessarily knowing exactly how much each college is going to cost).  And a lot of families fixate so much on the admissions deadlines that they aren't aware of what they'll need to do to apply for aid. 

If you're a senior (or the parent of one) who wants to apply for financial aid, here are a few things you should do now.

1.  Visit the financial aid sections of your colleges' websites.

2.  Find out exactly what forms (FAFSA, profile, or school-specific) are required and when they're due. 

3.  Look for information about other requirements, like submitting business statements or providing step-parent information.

You want to enter the new year knowing exactly what you'll need to do to apply for financial aid and when you'll need to do it.  Getting that information ahead of time will make the process of actually applying faster, easier, and less stressful.