One of the most important roles of the financial aid office is answering questions that help students and their families access funds to pay for higher education. Keeping it simple and easy for them to understand is challenging. We grouped information about common questions your office receives into a few key categories to provide a guide to helping students.
Types of Financial Aid
A great place for students and families to learn about the different sources of money available to pay for college is Federal Student Aid’s (FSA) website and videos. There, they can learn about the benefits of using free money that doesn’t need to be paid back – in the form of scholarships and grants – before using savings, college savings plan funds, federal work-study jobs, and federal student loans. Another option used to fill any gap in funding is private student loans. And, if your institution offers them, talk with students and families about payment plans that allow them to pay as they go to help reduce the need to take out student loans.
Other offices may be able to help your students pay for college. Depending on your student’s situation, you may refer them to career services for help with finding on-campus jobs. Work co-op offices may provide programs for working within a field while working on a degree. Other offices may offer additional help for first-generation, nontraditional, or international students.
The Financial Aid Application Process
Students and families will have many questions about the process of applying for financial aid – what’s required, and when and how to apply.
You’ll want to provide your financial aid application deadlines, but also encourage students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form as soon as possible to increase their chance of maximizing the amount of aid they receive. FSA’s website and our article about FAFSA® deadlines and tips provide important resources and reminders for students and families about when and how to complete this form and apply for financial aid.
If your college or university requires students to complete the CSS Profile in order to be considered for college aid from your institution, you’ll want to provide information about that – and the deadline – to incoming students and families. This form collects more detail, and is required in addition to the FAFSA®. The CSS Profile allows students and families to provide information about their special circumstances and lets you ask school-specific questions, too.
The Process of Receiving Financial Aid
You’re likely to get many questions about the process of receiving aid. Conscientious students will follow up to confirm whether all of their paperwork has been received. Students and families will be eager to get their financial aid award letter and may have questions about what it means. For example, they may want to know how much aid they’ll get and any special requirements needed to secure the funds (maintaining a certain GPA or financial requirements for renewable scholarships or grants). How much they receive depends on their Estimated Family Contribution and their own income – with students taking a greater number of courses or having greater financial need receiving more funds.
Students will wonder when their financial aid will come. At the start of each semester, federal financial aid is sent directly to the school, which applies it to tuition and fees first. Remaining funds are distributed to the student for spending on textbooks, room and board, or other expenses. Other institutional aid, such as grants or scholarships, may be given to the student directly in the form of a check or direct deposit.
Your students may also wonder how private scholarships will affect their financial aid award. Some schools subtract the scholarship from the student’s financial aid award package before other scholarships and grants are applied, while other schools subtract it from student loan awards or the amount the family is expected to pay (this latter situation offers a better deal for the family, requiring them to pay less).
Maximizing Financial Aid
While trying to figure out which school to attend, students and families may ask how accurate your net price calculator is – and what they’re asking is whether the amount of money available for scholarships and grants is similar to past years. The calculator is an online tool the federal government requires of all schools offering federal aid. Students can estimate potential financial aid for schools based on sharing financial, family, income, grades, test scores, and location information. The estimates are usually based on past year awards for students in a similar situation. Actual financial aid is based on completing the FAFSA® form.
Students may ask you if more financial aid has become available since their award letter was received – and it’s possible that last-minute scholarship money has become available if other students decide to attend another school or postpone college. Students may ask whether you’ll match a financial aid offer from another college – and, in competitive situations, some schools will. Often, if a student or family’s financial picture has changed substantially since they completed the FAFSA® form and financial aid was awarded, they may reach out to challenge their original award. You may share a special circumstances form with them, asking them to describe their revised financial circumstances so that you can reevaluate their aid package.
If you’re a more experienced financial aid professional, you could probably answer these questions in your sleep, but for your staff who are newer to the world of financial aid, we hope this resource has been useful. Knowing where to go for resources and help with answers to the most common questions you receive from students can be a great timesaver, freeing you for other, more challenging tasks.