Making it through the Financial Aid Maze

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In the last 24 hours I have spent some time explaining the world of financial aid and getting into College to both prospective students to our Board of Trustees.  It seems like such a foreign world with strange acronyms (FAFSA), and programs (Cal Grant, Pell Grant, ACG) and forbidding bureaucracies and their own deadlines and mystifying rules. 

Let me offer my simple guidelines for making your way through it–a simple list of what to do and not do to survive and to receive whatever you or your student might be eligible for.

First—do what they say. There are several financial aid bureaucracies and you can get caught in a labyrinth of  unforgiving rules with seemingly no way out. So, first, do what they say.  If they say fill out an application, do it. If they say you must request something (a GPA verification from a high school for instance), it is probably because there is a rule somewhere that says you must, and no one else can.  Swallow your pride about what you should or should not have to do and just do it.  The Federal Department of Education controls the process, calculates what they think families ought to be able to pay, allots federal grants and loan eligibility on this basis and tells the universities what they can and cannot offer.  They control it. Just do it, and you might be eligible for something.  In fairness, I should say that most of it is not too complex. Even I have made it through for the last couple of years.

Second–do it on time.  Don’t get on the wrong side of a deadline.  The earlier the better. But if later, apply anyway. 

Third–make sure it is accurate.  Take care with the information you submit. Some bureaucracies are do not allow corrections.  And some, the DOE for example, may require the university to verify that the information you have submitted is accurate.  They might require you to submit your tax forms for instance.  If the forms do not match the information you submitted, the university will be required to revoke the offer of aid they have sent to you.  When this happens, everyone has a bad day.

Fourth–when in doubt call the school you are working with and ask for help.  They really do want to help.  They don’t want you to get caught by a rule or on the wrong side of a deadline.  They want you or your child to become a student, to have a good experience, and to graduate. I have had to ask for help when I messed something up, even though I work in the field.  My colleagues had a good laugh, and a good day.

Fifth–apply for everything.  There is a lot of aid out there–“grants” for “need” and “scholarships” for “ability.” They might come from the university, from a donor to the university, from a corporation, from a group that wants to support certain kinds of students, from your church, from a credit union, from and ethnic support group, from many, many organizations.  Do a little research, fill out some applications, and write some letters. You might gain a few hundred dollars, a couple of thousand, or a find some major support for your education.  And always send a note of gratitude. Our system of private scholarships and grants is amazing in its wealth and dedication to education. Knowing what I now know, I should have said much more in the notes I sent.

Sixth–if you get an “award package” of scholarships and grants, but you don’t know if it will work for you, call the university and explain your situation.  The Federal rules do allow administrators to exercise “professional judgement” within certain parameters.  And each university has its own guidelines for how to help in certain situations. They may not be able to give you any more, but they might be able to give you some ideas on how others make it work, or other places to look.

We, and others, really will try to help. We want to make it possible for as many students as possible to gain their education. It may seem like a maze, but it is really not that difficult, and there are many place to find grants and scholarships

Good luck in the coming year.  I would enjoy hearing your experiences.

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