Basics About Financial Aid

When my kid was 10 months old, I walked into my neighborhood bank and asked to speak to my banker, “Roge”. No “r” on the end of that, just “Roge.” I asked “Roge,” how much money I would need to save to send this pipsqueak to college in 17 years? “Roge” started banging away at his calculator. Eventually, he looked up at me and said matter-of-factly: $250,000. I gasped. How could that be? The baby had said nothing of wanting to go to medical school or an Ivy, or really anything other than “blalalagalala”…because frankly, he couldn’t talk. How could that need $250,000 for college? Then I believe I blacked out.

Here’s what I learned that day: college is expensive. And “Roge’s” real name was Doug. The real lesson? Nothing is what it seems to be on the surface. Including the cost of college. Like the cost of a new car or a plane flight – everybody pays a different price for the same college. That’s why it pays to understand some basics about


So, grab a pen and paper because the powers that be designed this stuff to be confusing. If you’re confused, you tend to give up. And if you give up, you leave money on the table. Here’s how it works: Every college has a sticker price that mostly nobody pays. Begs the question why have that sticker price in the first place, but I’m not in charge… If I was in charge, that would change. Also, if I were in charge, no hipster guy would ever be allowed to bring their guitar to a party – unless it was Eric Clapton. But I digress. There’s this sticker price, BUT there’s also a bunch of financial aid options that reduce that sticker price down to a “net” price, which is what the student/family ultimately pays. The details:

  • COA – “Cost of Attendance.” The sticker price. COA includes tuition, fees, room and board, supplies, and travel.
  • FAFSA – “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” The first step in applying for most financial aid, it’s an online form that comes out Oct 1st of your student’s senior year. No matter how much money you make or have squirreled away beneath your mattress, fill it out. You won’t know how much money a college, the federal or a state government may give you until you fill this out. If your student isn’t yet a senior and you want to get an early ESTIMATE of what kind of aid may be available to you, check out the FAFSA4Caster: www.fafsa.ed.gov/spa/fafsa4c/#/landing.

(Don’t forget to explore state aid. Cali families, check out CalGrants: https://www.csac.ca/gov)

  • EFC – “Expected Family Contribution,” (soon to become the Student Aid Index). This is the number the FAFSA spits out. The government and, ultimately, the colleges use this number to determine how much they think you can afford to contribute to your kid’s education.
  • CSS PROFILE – If you’re applying to private liberal arts schools, which may give you more money than state public schools, you could also be asked to fill out this online form.
  • TYPES OF FINANCIAL AID – There are different types of aid. Gift aid (scholarships and grants) is aid you don’t pay Manna from heaven. Loans, are money you pay back with interest. Work/study – is usually an opportunity for the student to get a campus job – though this opportunity is never guaranteed. Gift aid can be “need-based” (calculated using income and assets) or merit-based (“earned” by academics, sports, or other talents). If your student has a strong academic profile, it pays to look for schools (that give merit aid) where they are in the top 25%. Got a student oboe player? That’s a talent.
  • NET PRICE CALCULATOR –   Every college website has a Net Price Calculator. Enter a small amount of information and get an estimate of what that college might offer you in financial aid if your student were to be accepted there.
  • APPEALS – If your student is accepted into a school and offered a financial aid package below what you were hoping for, you can “appeal.” Generally, appeals need to be for strong reasons, such as your financial situation changed since you filled out the FAFSA (which can happen since the FAFSA asks for “prior-prior” year financials).

There is a lot more information regarding aid. In the end, colleges need to be a good fit, academically, socially, and financially. Visit our website (www.mentors4college.org) to sign up for a free mentor. We use all the consonants in our names and we can help.

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