Three financial aid counselors share pro tips to maximize your financial aid award.
Many students want free money for college, but getting that money can be a bit of a challenge. The college financial aid process isn’t exactly user-friendly, and can even be downright overwhelming, opaque, and confusing. How can you maximize your financial aid award and make college affordable, despite the arduous process?
Sometimes, it may help to call in an expert--in this case, a financial aid counselor. Financial aid advisors can help you craft a financial plan for college, identify good options for your college applications, navigate the financial aid forms, and help you interpret your financial aid packages.
We spoke with three financial aid experts about their work and how students and parents can take steps to reduce the cost of college.
Edmit: What’s the value of working with a financial aid counselor, and how should students and parents approach the decision?
First and foremost, “you need to identify what you want to get out of hiring this consultant,” says Kathy Ruby, director of college finance at College Coach. Are your finances particularly complicated? Do you not have time or resources to research and determine which colleges are your best financial fit? Do you really hate filling out forms, and want to outsource the research and application process? Know what you want in advance, so you can set your specific parameters for the working relationship early.
Working with a financial aid expert “can be valuable for families that find they don't want to go through the process of learning the financial aid system themselves or have varying or complex situations they are dealing with,” says Blaine Blontz, a Philadelphia-based consultant.
Ruby agrees: “Someone who has a really complex financial situation, whether it’s a divorce or a complicated asset would benefit,” she says. She also emphasizes rigorous vetting to determine the consultant’s expertise. Parents should ask “is this a person who has experience in higher education? Are they someone who actually understands how the processes work, how the colleges work?” she says.
“Ask qualifying questions of the person you’re working with,” says Jason Youngblood, president of National College Planners in Thousand Oaks, California. “The financial aid advisor should know that the US Department of Education rules and regulations are different from the IRS, and know that sometimes information conflicts. Work with someone who is qualified and a can do a systemic audit of the financial aid file before it is submitted.”
Edmit: What should families expect to budget for working with a financial aid coach or consultant?
“For working with a financial aid advisor, families should budget a range from $995 to $1500,” says Youngblood. But because services will vary widely across consultants and clients, shop around with a few financial aid experts to get quotes for services, and then do an apples-to-apples comparison based on your budget and expected outcomes.
“In my case, I work on a fee-for-service basis with my families,” says Blontz. “I think budgeting at least a few hundred dollars per student would be reasonable, and then there should be expectations for potential increases in expense based on the complexity of the situation.”
Additionally, don’t forget to ask your employer if any college consultation services are available to you as an employee benefit. (College Coach, for instance, partners with more than 150 employers to provide services as part of an employee benefits package.)
Edmit: How can financial aid counselors help students determine the return on investment (ROI) of their college decision?
A main benefit of working with a financial aid expert is getting their long-term holistic view about your college decision, particularly in terms of career planning.
“Let’s say a student wants to major in mathematics,” says Youngblood. “What career options do you have with that? We’ll research seven to 10 majors based on hypotheticals and see what careers are out there based on that major. It can be difficult with teenagers--80 percent of students don’t know [their future career plans]--so we give them a foundation to strive for.”
Even if you don’t know your intended major or career plans yet, have a few options in mind when meeting with a college financial aid expert, and emphasize ROI in your conversations. Will your potential school be a good choice based on the quality of the education, estimated future earnings, and expected monthly student loan payments after graduation?
Edmit: What are some key steps families can take to ensure they’re making a well-informed decision--and not be taking on too much debt?
“First, sit down and figure out what they can afford,” says Ruby, including “managing expectations with their child. As parents, you have to set the financial parameters because a student can’t do this all on their own. So that expectation you’re managing is ‘you’re applying where you want to apply, but let’s come up with a range of schools where you could be happy at any one of them and then just know that price is going to have to matter in the end.’ But that does require, as a parent, figuring out, ‘what can we manage? Even if we have to borrow, what is a reasonable amount?’”
“Families should consider all options, and this includes two years of community college,” says Blontz. “While there is still unfortunately a stigma around such a process, it can save families a lot of money. I think that managing expectations of the student throughout the admission and financial aid process is important as well so that the most efficient and well-informed decisions possible can be made.”
“Analyze the big picture, not one year at a time,” says Youngblood. “Take a clear snapshot of a four- or even five-year program to see if their budget will cover what the outcome will be over five years.”
“When a family asks me ‘how can I get the most money for college?’, my immediate answer is it’s all about the list of colleges you’re applying to and how you fit into the applicant pool at that school,” says Ruby. “So if you’re at the top of the pool and it’s a school that needs to use merit aid to attract students, then yes, you can position yourself well to get better scholarship money.”
Edmit: How can students and parents research the true cost of college?
“Net price calculators can be a nice, free starting point,” says Blontz.
Beyond the net price calculator, dig deep on a particular college’s website to learn more about scholarships. “See who they award them to, whether they have scholarships available for returning students,” says Ruby. “There are some colleges where when you go in as a first-year student, that’s what you get for the four years. Other colleges, that maybe have issues with retention, may offer special scholarships for returning students--that’s the kind of research you want to do to figure out what’s available. If you can’t figure it out from the website, call the financial aid office or send them an email.”
Ruby also recommends a deep dive on both merit- and need-based aid options and whether they are renewable for all four years. “For merit scholarships, understand what the GPA requirement is, and don’t be afraid to ask: ‘How many kids don’t make it? How hard is this going to be?’” she says. “For need-based aid, if you’ve got two kids in college, one going in to college and one going to graduate, that’s potential for losing financial aid, and then the other way around--if you have one in college and then there will be another one in college, ask whether your package will increase when that happens, because you’ll have more financial need.”
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In analyzing financial aid packages, “never use the word ‘negotiate,’” says Youngblood. “Instead, use ‘evaluate’ or ‘appeal’, and the financial aid office will analyze and re-open a claim.”
“I always advise students to find out what the social media outlet is that the financial aid office uses and then like it, so if they have a Facebook page, follow them, and schedule an appointment with a counselor,” Ruby adds. “Just keep yourself in front of them as someone who is looking for money. It really can vary from school to school, so you want to be in their face.”
Edmit: Do you have a recommended timeline for students to start the financial aid research process?
“For starting the financial aid process, the FAFSA looks at base income year, which is two years prior to filing,” says Youngblood. “So if a student is starting in fall 2018, FAFSA will look at their parents’ 2016 tax return. So start looking for financial aid a year and a half before the base income year.”
“If the family would like to make changes to their financial aid profile before the base year of consideration, they should start their planning as soon as freshman or sophomore year of high school,” says Blontz. “I would advise families to at least begin learning about financial aid in general the spring semester of the student's junior year of high school so they can prepare for any required forms or procedures.”
“For private scholarships, we advise students to start in ninth grade,” says Ruby. “It’s not that they’ll necessarily find scholarships that they can apply for yet, but that they may find some scholarships that inspire them to do something, to go win it, as opposed to waiting until you’re a senior and by that time you’re limited to whatever’s out there. So for private scholarships, it’s never too early.”
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