/ Financial Aid

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Financial Aid Essentials

Financial aid packages are designed to level the playing field, when it comes to education. By providing students with a bit of a financial boost, the administrators of financial aid packages hope to ensure that even students from the poorest families can get a good education, so they can get the opportunities that allow them to change the fortunes of the family for good.

Types of Financial Aid

When people think about financial aid programs, they tend to think about full-ride academic scholarships offered by colleges to needy but gifted students. While these programs do exist, there are many other types of financial aid programs, including:


Awarded on need basis

Don’t require repayment


Awarded for merit

Don’t require repayment

Subsidized Loans

Do require repayment

Based on need


Based on need

Work is required

Some of these financial aid products require students to enroll for a specific number of credits each term or complete a certain number of tasks on a weekly basis. Others require students to pay back a portion of the money a student receives for school. Understanding the details of each product is vital, as it can help students to stay in compliance and avoid financial penalty.

While the federal government is the source of the majority of aid provided to students, there are other entities that also provide aid.

Amount of Aid Received

While students might be curious about the kinds of aid available and the ways in which aid programs work, they may be most curious about how much money they can expect to receive. While the answer might vary, depending on the student and that student’s situation, there are some statistics that can help to illuminate the issue.

Schools may also provide financial aid, and as a profile of grants for law schools, published by U.S. News and World Report demonstrates, the award amounts can vary dramatically based on the school the student chooses.

Even the state a student lives in could have a huge impact on the amount of financial aid available, as these statistics from the Brookings Institute demonstrate.

Understanding the Gap

While financial aid can certainly help students to attend school and get the education they both want and need, it’s not uncommon for these programs to contain a significant gap. In other words, it’s not uncommon for students to take out unsubsidized or private loans, even while they’re accessing financial aid.

As this graphic makes clear, students who get financial aid tend to borrow even more than their counterparts who don’t get aid. Their financial needs are just greater, and they must access more sources of funding in order to make ends meet.

Getting the Most Aid Possible

Almost all sources of financial aid rely on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to determine a student’s financial need and eligibility for aid. Filling this form out is the first priority for almost all students when the new year rolls around, but as this chart from the U.S. Department of Education demonstrates, some students wait far too long before they begin their work.

One Third
One-third of students fill out a FAFSA in the first quarter
Three Fifths
Three-fifths of applications are complete by the second quarter
Five Sixths
Five-sixths are complete by the end of the third quarter

Handling Disappointment

If students are provided with financial aid packages that don’t cover all of the expenses a family might anticipate, there are some things families can do. These steps may help:

  • Schedule a meeting with the financial aid officer, and bring all pertinent financial documents to that meeting.
  • Be polite, but firm, about the family’s need for additional aid.
  • Show documentation from other schools, if the student’s been provided a more generous financial package at a different institution.
  • Follow up the meeting with an email message, reiterating key points.
  • Fill out formal appeal paperwork, if applicable.

While smaller schools may not be able to play ball on financial packages, some larger schools may be open to negotiation, so discussing the issue diplomatically could deliver big results.


How do I qualify for student financial aid?
In order to qualify for student financial aid, your financial information must display a serious financial need. As one might expect, applicants with the highest need for finances are awarded the most financial aid. Others who demonstrate less need are awarded a smaller portion according to their need. Other than that, you need to make sure that you are a legal U.S. citizen with a SSN, have not defaulted on any other loan, and have completed a minimum of high school education.

What are the different types of financial aid?
The various types of financial aid programs include federal financial aid, institutional financial aid, and private financial aid. Federal financial aid is the most sought after source of funding for students since federal loans have the lowest interest rates and the most lenient terms and conditions. Institutional aid is mostly awarded to students with outstanding academic achievements or with extreme financial need. Private financial aid programs are stringent in terms and conditions and often have high interest rates. It is recommended that students utilize federal financial aid first, and if it does not fully cover the applicant’s need, only then should students look to other types of financial aid.

When should I file the financial aid forms?
The earliest you can file the FAFSA is January 1st of senior year in high school, so you will want to file soon as possible after that date. The PROFILE can be sent in at any time, so filing early – before January 1st – is advisable.

If you anticipate qualifying for need-based financial aid, you must file no later than March 1st. Many states and most colleges use the March 1st filing deadline to close eligibility for state and campus-based aid. By missing that date, you may be ineligible for those kinds of aid, your need notwithstanding. Do not miss this deadline.

How can I complete a financial aid form if my taxes aren’t done?
Make a reasonable estimate based on last year’s tax return, and send the form(s) in as early as possible to stake your place at the front of the financial aid line. You can update your form with more accurate information later without losing your place in line, so there’s no harm in filing early.

Is it better to file electronically or by regular mail?
We urge you to file the FAFSA electronically; for those of you who have to complete the CSS/PROFILE, that form must be filed electronically. Electronic filing is faster, more responsive, and easier for the colleges to process. If you file by regular mail, be sure to make a copy of the form and get a Certificate of Mailing at the post office to verify the mailing date. Don’t lose the certificate, and do not use Certified or Registered Mail or anything that requires a signature at the point of destination.

I just received something from IDOC. What is it?
A growing number of colleges use a service called IDOC. Using tax return data, it informs the college principally about actual cash flow by looking for “phantom losses” on the tax form. The IDOC tends to discount things like depreciation and carryover losses from stock sales and other transactions.

What happens if my family owns a business or farm?
The relevant information will be included on the FAFSA, but if you file a PROFILE, you will be asked to complete a Business/Farm supplement similar to a multi-year Schedule C on your 1040.

What if the current year’s income is going to be different from the one (last year’s income) I reported on the financial aid forms?
If your current income goes up, wait until the end of the calendar year to report it on the next FAFSA and PROFILE. If your income goes down, once the student gets admitted, contact the college’s financial aid office to discuss the EFC given your new, lower, income. They will guide you through the appeal process.

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