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8 Tips for Applying for Financial Aid for College Bound High School Seniors

Widening Perception
Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

While January 1, 2011 marks the deadline to apply to college for many colleges across the country it also signals the beginning of the financial aid process for the 2011-2012 school year.  Increasingly, for many college bound high school seniors, what they are able to get for financial aid will largely determine what college they attend. During #CollegeChat, Sharon McLaughlin, a college planning consultant and financial aid expert and founder of McLaughlin Education Consulting (http://www.headforcollege.com) provided her best tips for college bound high school seniors to ensure the best financial aid package.

1. Apply for Financial Aid early. In order to have the best chance to receive the best financial aid package possible, students need to make sure they apply for financial aid as soon as possible. College Financial Aid Offices have a fixed amount of institutional aid to dispense each year. In addition, many states have their own deadlines for students to complete the FAFSA in order to be eligible for state funds.

2. Understand what falls underneath Financial Aid. Grants, loans, institutional scholarships, and work study make up a typical financial aid package. Grants and scholarships are not paid back so are generally considered the most desirable forms of financial aid.

3. Fill out the FAFSA. In order to begin the financial aid process you must fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).  In order to be considered for any financial aid—even institution based scholarships as well as merit aid scholarships—families must fill out this form. Although the 2011-2012 FAFSA on the Web Worksheet isn’t available yet you can review the 2010-2011 worksheet to review the materials you will need to have to apply.

4. Find out your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is what the government says a family and student should pay based on family income and assets. The EFC is determined by the information a family reports on the FAFSA application. Families and students need to understand that the EFC is merely a starting point and colleges can award money however they want.  If you haven’t filled out the FAFSA yet, you can get an estimate of your EFC through CollegeBoard.com online EFC calculator at http://apps.collegeboard.com/fincalc/efc_welcome.jsp?noload=Y . FinAid.com provides both a federal and institutional calculator at http://www.finaid.org/calculators/finaidestimate.phtml.

5. Find out if you need to complete the CSS Financial Aid PROFILE. A number of private colleges and universities require students to fill out a CSS Financial Aid PROFILE. You should be able to easily determine whether the college you have applied to does by going to their financial aid section on their web site. If in doubt, contact the college financial aid office directly.

6. Remember all students are eligible for financial aid regardless of income. “One of the biggest myths about financial aid is that my parents make too much,” said McLaughlin. “All students are eligible for financial aid even if it’s only Direct Unsubsidized Stafford Loans. Families that make over $200,000 per year may qualify for loans and non need based scholarships and grants.”

7. What can you do if your parents refuse to fill out the FAFSA. “Parents who refuse to file the FAFSA only hurt the student,” said McLaughlin. “No FAFSA means no aid in most circumstances. Students should not try to get parent information on the sly. A parent signature is needed in order to file the FAFSA and falsifying the FAFSA is a federal crime.”

According to the FAFSA web site, “Under very limited circumstances, an otherwise dependent student may be able to submit the FAFSA without parental information due to special circumstances.” To find out if you fall under special circumstances you can review http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/faq002.htm#faq002_3 .

8. How to appeal a financial aid decision. In the event a family’s situation has changed financially due to a job loss or other reasons, a student should appeal to the financial aid office for a review. McLaughlin recommends the first step should be to call the financial aid office and explain what has happened and how to go about appealing the financial aid package.

Sharon McLaughlin is a former college administrator with more than twenty years of experience in student enrollment services. Sharon draws her expertise from her work at private and public colleges in New England, both as a college admissions and financial aid administrator. Sharon holds a MEd in Adult Education and was the first professional college planning consultant in Central Massachusetts the designation of Certified College Planning Specialist (CPPS) from the National Institute of Certified College Planers (NICCP).

About #CollegeChat

#CollegeChat is a live bi-monthly conversation intended for teens, college students, parents, and higher education experts on Twitter. #CollegeChat takes place on the first and third Tuesday of the month at 6 pm Pacific/ 9 pm Eastern. Questions for each #CollegeChat edition can be sent to Theresa Smith, the moderator of #CollegeChat via http://Twitter.com/collegechat , by entering questions online on the CollegeChat Facebook page at http://ht.ly/1XIqV , or by email. More detailed information about signing up for Twitter and participating in #Collegechat  can be found at  http://pathwaypr.com/how-to-participate-in-a-twitter-chat .CollegeChat can also be found on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/collegechat .

College Admissions Expert Provides High School Seniors with 8 Action Items to Help Ease the College Admissions Process

With Labor Day marking the un-official end to summer,  high school seniors are now back in school gearing up for what many students consider the grueling and stressful college admissions process. But according to Mark Montgomery, PhD, a college admissions expert and president of Montgomery Educational Consulting (http://greatcollegeadvice.com/), the college admissions process doesn’t need to be so stressful. On the last #CollegeChat, a live bi- monthly conversation intended for teens, college students, parents, and higher education experts on Twitter, Montgomery shared his tips on what students can do to prepare for college admissions.

“Even if high school seniors are busy, it’s not too late to get started. There is plenty of time to get everything done. Seniors just need to get organized,” said Montgomery.

Montgomery recommends the following tips to ease the college admission process.

Decide if you are going to take any more standardized tests. High school seniors need to quickly determine if they want or need to take the SAT, ACT, or SAT II subject tests. Both the SAT and ACT have only two test dates left to register for in 2010. More information about test dates can be found http://sat.collegeboard.com/register and http://www.actstudent.org/regist/dates.html.

In addition, Montgomery recommends that students not take any of these tests more than three times. “I usually say three times and you’re out. For some students I tell them once is enough.” According to Akil Bello, (http://twitter.com/akilbello) the vice president of Educational Development for Bell Curves, “Kids who do it right take four to eight practice tests and one to two real tests.”

Students also should assess whether the SAT or ACT is best for them. Bello commented that the best way to choose between the SAT and ACT is to take a free practice test of each. For students that don’t test well no need to panic. Sharon McLaughlin (http://twitter.com/shashmc) , founder of McLaughlin Education  Consulting, pointed out that an increasing number of colleges are  test optional. A list of these schools can be found at http://www.fairtest.org/university/optional.

Don’t drop your challenging course work and keep up your grades. Senior year matters and students need to be careful about both keeping their grades up as well as not pulling any senior pranks that might negate their college acceptance letters.  “Seniors need to keep going all the way to the finish line. Don’t let up senior year and beware of senioritis. It can be detrimental to your future,” advised Montgomery.

Many colleges review the first semester of senior year transcripts before making their admission decision.  In addition, McLaughlin said, “Colleges will ask for the final high school transcript and have been known to revoke offer if student’s grades slipped.”

Matt Impink (http://twitter.com/goal2025) of the Lumina Foundation for Education,  remarked that keeping up challenging course work senior year is very important because “it’s about preparing for the rigor of college.”

Determine your EFC. EFC is expected family contribution. It is what the government says a family and student should pay based on family income and assets. The EFC is determined by the information a family reports on the FAFSA application http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/index.htm. FAFSA stands for free application for federal student aid. In order to be considered for any financial aid—even institution based scholarships—families must fill out this form.

There are two ways of calculating EFC: the government’s way via the FAFSA and the “institutional” way. According to Montgomery, the institutional way is basically how colleges tell students their price. No two institutions are exactly the same. “Colleges use the EFC as a starting point , then they decide how much they want you by lowering the price,” explained Montgomery.

“I think every family, once their child is in high school should obtain their preliminary EFC,” said Lynn O’Shaughnessy (http://twitter.com/collegeblogs), award winning college author and blogger.

CollegeBoard.com offers a free online EFC calculator at http://apps.collegeboard.com/fincalc/efc_welcome.jsp?noload=Y and FinAid.com provides both a federal and instiutitonal calculator at http://www.finaid.org/calculators/finaidestimate.phtml.

“It’s important to understand that EFC is only a starting point for schools. They can give money to whom they want,” said Russell Golowin, (http://twitter.com/Russell_Golowin), estate planning lawyer and financial aid adviser.

Go after schools where you are in the top quarter academically. If cost in an important factor “students should choose ones where you are at the top of the academic heap,” said Montgomery. “A reach college is rarely the best financial choice unless it’s one of the most wealthy and selective colleges.” Reach schools are schools that are probably out of reach for a student to be accepted to based on SAT scores and a student’s high school resume including their GPA and course work.

Janson Woodlee,( http://twitter.com/IvyEyesEditing) founder of  Ivy Eyes Editing, a writing and admissions consultancy,  added that  “Collegeresults.org is a great place to start by comparing graduation rates and other good data.” Students can also gather good information about colleges at http://www.collegeboard.com/.  At CollegeBoard.com students can search for colleges based on a number of factors including cost, location, and majors.

“I like to tell my students to think like Cinderella, let the suitors bring you gifts to attract you to their kingdoms,” said Montgomery.  And the most effective way of attracting colleges, is to be in the top quarter of admitted students reported SAT  and ACT scores as well as GPA. This information is readily available on college websites.

In an online post  “Ten College Planning Tips for Tough Economic Times” http://greatcollegeadvice.com/ten-college-planning-tips-for-tough-economic-times/ Montgomery wrote, “So if  Elmer Fudd College reports the middle 50% ACT range of 22 to 26, this means 25% of students scored lower than 22, and another 25% scored 27 or higher.   An applicant to Elmer Fudd College with an ACT of 29 has a much better chance of receiving a solid financial aid package than the applicant with a 22.”

Fine tune your college wish list and don’t eliminate schools with a high sticker price. Don’t eliminate expensive colleges from your list. Montgomery recommended that students keep in mind that the price of college is “like airline fares. Everyone is going the same place, but everyone on the plane is paying a different price.

O’Shaughnessy  recommends students use the Federal College Navigator website http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/ and research a college’s Common Data Set to research the real price of a school. Recently, O’Shaughnessy wrote about how to research Common Data Set at http://thecollegesolutionblog.com/2010/09/02/common-data-set-101/. She also recommends Collegeboard.com for some quick stats such as average financial aid package and the ratio of loans to grants.

Understand what makes up financial aid.  Talk to your family about the college fund. Financial  aid includes grants, scholarships, loans and work study. “But I can’t really think of loans as financial aid. Loans are really just you paying the same amount later,” said Montgomery. “Colleges will brag about how much money they offer in “aid” but a big chunk of that “aid” is really loans.”  Obviously the most desirable forms of financial aid are grants, scholarships, discounts and work study—aid that does not need to be paid back.

In the event a student is not happy with their financial aid package it is possible to try to have it reviewed. However, Montgomery said, “Renegotiating aid can work, but only in some circumstances. The college has to really want you.”  O’Shaughnessy agreed, “Colleges will negotiate for the kids they want bad.  Those who barely got in will not get more generous aid.  And most elite colleges often don’t negotiate because their financial aid packages are generous to being with.”

However, in the event a family’s situation has changed financially due to a job loss or other reasons, a student should appeal to the financial aid office for a review recommended McLaughlin.

Montgomery also stresses the importance of a family sitting down and talking about how much money is in the family budget for college. “In tough economic times, students and parents need to think about their financial future.”

Make sure you understand the difference between Early Action versus Early Decision. If you apply to a college early decision it means if accepted you are “bound” to attend that college provided that the college provides an “adequate” financial aid package. A student can only apply to one college “early action” but may apply to other colleges through the regular admission process. If the student is accepted “early decision” all other college applications must be withdrawn. This means that a high school may only send the final transcript to the “early decision” school.

Montgomery explained that early decision means, “If you accept me, I promise to attend. The problem with early decision for financial aid is that it’s harder to get the lowest price when you promise to get married if he asks.”

Early action plans, while similar to early decision, are not binding. Students can also apply to more than one school early action. “Consider early decision or early action if you really don’t worry about financial aid and if you are positively in love with that school,” said Montgomery.

Finish by Halloween. Last but not least, Montgomery recommends to the students he advises to finish all their college applications by Halloween. Then, in order to meet this deadline, they just back up the timetable to accommodate this deadline. That means if you haven’t started your college essays and applications  you need to get started now.  Hopefully, you have already asked for your teacher recommendations. If not, politely request them now. After all, it’s six weeks to Halloween.