Financial Aid Season – Just Do It!

by Carin Smith on January 28, 2016

You may recall from my previous blog posts that I am a crier.

I am also a world-class worrier.

It should come as no surprise that, almost immediately after my son started getting into colleges, I shifted my worry gears into how we would pay for him to go to college (and here I am doing it again – one final time with my high school senior). Like many families, my husband and I had given this some attention (along with some thought and, yes, worry) since the day our children were born. But now it was (and is again) REAL.

Before I go on, there are some personal factors I should share so that I might adequately set the stage for my level of angst.

Education is highly valued in my family – always has been, always will be. Somehow, my parents (both educated, but living a very middle income life) successfully sent 6 kids off to liberal arts colleges. I don’t remember a single conversation that started with “we can’t afford this school.” (So this was new territory for us.) Both my husband and I work in the field of education (a noble profession, I like to think, but not one that lends itself to large bank accounts). The schools to which my son was admitted cost—on average—more for one year than the nicest car I would have ever dreamed of owning. The cost for 4 years would be… well, let’s not go there. My son was heading off to college at the height of this country’s most recent recession. To make myself feel better, I tried very hard to listen to the advice I had been giving families over my 30 financial aid seasons:

  • You’ll never know the true cost of a college until you submit all appropriate paperwork to your schools.
  • Every school handles scholarship and financial aid dollars differently. The same student may look very different in different colleges’ applicant pools.
  • Scholarship decisions are not equivalent to the worth of a child in their mother’s eyes (if only!!!!)
  • Financial aid officers are human beings. Many are parents themselves. Most tend to have a pretty high level of compassion to go along with their expertise. They know that families are anxious about this process AND they know that each family’s financial situation is unique. They will answer your questions. They are (along with admissions officers) your best source of information.
  • (This means that the well-meaning, “been there, done that” parent in the line at the grocery checkout is probably not your best source of information about this.)

When February rolled around (as it’s just done again!), we arrived at the moment where we had to stop worrying and get to work. It started by NOT waiting until April 15 to file our tax return. We got that thing done earlier than we ever had done it. (I wish I could tell you that the process and paperwork was pleasurable, but it wasn’t so awful that we didn’t get it done – we did. We even got it done on time.)

If you have been avoiding the heavy lifting involved in this part of your child’s college search process, I would encourage you to follow a certain athletic company’s advice and “Just Do It.” Only when you do will you learn the real numbers and real costs at individual schools.

Here are some important resources to help get you through this:

  • The official FAFSA website is: www.fafsa.gov (Not fafsa. com… run away from that one.)
  • The official CSS PROFILE website is: www.collegeboard.org/css-financial-aid-profile
  • StudentAid.gov provides information about federal student aid programs, eligibility, how to fill out the FAFSA, and what to expect after submitting the FAFSA, as well as guidance on repaying student loans.
  • StudentAid.gov/fafsa gets into the real nitty-gritty about the FAFSA: find details about dependency status, who counts as a parent, how to figure out when the IRS Data Retrieval Tool will be available for an individual applicant, or how to report same-sex marriages on the FAFSA.

I’ll say it again (recognizing my own professional bias): admissions and financial aid officers on college campuses everywhere are terrific sources of information, expertise, and worry abatement.

And really… worrying is overrated.

Take it from a world-class worrier.

Carin Smith
Regional Admissions Director
Lawrence University

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