On Wednesday, December 2, the Lincoln Academy Guidance Office hosted a Financial Aid Information night at the Poe Theater at LA. Families of high school seniors and juniors were invited to attend to learn more about the daunting prospect of paying for college.
Lincoln Academy’s Director of Counseling Studies Sarah Wills Viega opened the meeting by introducing Jennifer Lanphear, a College Access Counselor from the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME), who gave an informative talk about applying and receiving financial aid for college.
Lanphear began by saying there are two categories of financial aid for college students: need-based aid and merit aid. “This presentation,” she said, “is mostly about need-based aid. Merit based aid looks at what students bring to the table. Most people know about athletic and academic scholarships. These are merit-based aid. But there are other categories of merit-based aid,” including scholarships for theater, music, and other specialized majors, even video-game design.
Merit money is worth pursuing, continued Lanphear, who advised looking for scholarships at the local, state, and federal level, as well as asking colleges about their own available scholarships. “If you do get offered merit money by the college you hope to go to, don’t be afraid to ask for more.” She explained that when students ask, colleges can sometimes find more money. “Worst case scenario, they say no. Best case, they offer you additional funds. It can’t hurt to ask!”
Turning her presentation to need-based aid, Lanphear started with the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a form required to receive any federal funds, including grants, loans, and work study funds. Everyone who applies to college should fill out the FAFSA, even if they will only qualify for a small amount of aid.
Lanphear recommended that families do some preparation work before actually filling out the FAFSA. “Be sure to look past the ‘sticker price’ of tuition and room and board, to the real cost of attending a college,” advised Lanphear. How can families find out about the net price? “Every college that gives out financial aid has a ‘net price calculator’ on their website. Go to the college’s home page, type in ‘net price calculator’ in the search bar. In the college’s calculator, you fill out information about student and family finances, and get a rough calculation of financial aid.” This calculator only provides an estimate, of course. Financial aid is not final until students have been accepted to a college, and all federal forms are complete, but these calculators can help families plan ahead.
Lanphear’s number one piece of advice for families applying for financial aid was to meet deadlines, both admissions deadlines and financial aid deadlines. “Meeting deadlines sets you up to get the most aid you are eligible for. Schools have a set amount of aid, once it’s gone, it’s gone.” She advised families to “treat your financial aid process like a part time job. Set aside a few hours a week to fill out forms, check emails, search for scholarships, and make sure your financial records are correct.”
In addition to the FAFSA, schools with more of their own money to distribute usually require a more detailed financial aid form, the most popular of which is the CSS Profile. This form is significantly more involved, and asks for more extensive financial information about assets as well as income. The form can be daunting for families, but “If colleges do require this, it is probably good news, because it means there is more money to go around.”
Lanphear also updated families on changes to the FAFSA process. FAFSA used to require a simple 4-digit pin, but now each student and one parent needs a Federal Student Aid Identification (FSAID), which is much more secure, and more complicated, than the old pin system. Families should know that the process of getting an FSAID can take a few days, and they are advised to apply for this ID well before January 1, when this year’s FAFSA form goes live. FSAID applications can be found on the FAFSA website: www.FSAID.ed.gov.
Once they have their FSAID, Lanphear offered advice to families for actually filling out the FAFSA form.
First, when applying for financial aid, families should use the official FAFSA.gov website. “The FAFSA is always free! Do not be distracted by other sites that try to charge you,” Lanphear warns.
Second, families should fill out the form as soon as it is available. This year that is January 1, 2016, but in the future this date will be moved back to October of a student’s senior year of high school. Families should fill out the FAFSA form based on estimated taxes, and then update the form later after their taxes are filed. She also reminded families that they must fill out the FAFSA every year their students are in college. This year’s seniors want the 2016-17 FAFSA. Although the 2015-16 FAFSA is available now, that is not the correct form for this year’s seniors.
Third, she spoke about whose financial information the FAFSA form actually refers to. “If biological or adoptive parents are living together, these are the parents. If parents are divorced, then forms should be filled out by the parent that the student lives with for the most days during a particular tax year. If custody is split exactly 50/50, then the parent who provides most financial support should fill out the form. If the custodial parent is remarried, stepparent financial information is required as well. Foster and guardian situations are treated differently: foster parents and guardians are not required to submit their own financial information; in those cases students will be treated as emancipated minors.
Once the FAFSA has been submitted, families will receive a FAFSA result known as the EFC, or Expected Family Contribution. The EFC is affected by many factors, including the number of sibling in college, and how close parents are to retirement age. “Don’t panic when you get your EFC. This is not your final destiny! Wait to hear from each college about financial aid offers,” Lanphear reassured families in the audience.
She also warned parents to watch carefully for documents, which will come to the student’s email. “Missing an email that comes to your child’s email account is an easy way to miss deadlines, and you don’t want to miss deadlines! Pay attention to emails–they are very important in the financial aid process.”
Colleges will make financial offers based on the general formula of cost of attendance (which includes tuition, room and board, books, and other expenses like travel) minus the EFC = financial need. Colleges will try to cover this need, and different colleges cover a different percentage of student need. It is helpful to look at college websites under the “paying” tab for the percentage of need that is met. This percentage will give applicants an idea of how much financial aid colleges are able to give.
Colleges offer families a Financial Aid package that will attempt to meet their need with a combination of loans and grants. Families should be aware that even if the numbers look like colleges are covering 100% of need, some of the offer may be in loans, and loans will be a combination of subsidized and unsubsidized, with varying grace periods after college graduation. The best case scenario is when colleges offer more aid in grants than in loans, since grants do not have to be repaid. It is possible that a college will not be able to meet 100% of a family’s need. This gap will then need to be filled through other resources such as outside scholarships, parent loans, savings, etc.
Financial aid offers are not final until students have accepted their spot with the admission office and signed the financial aid contract. “This process may seem overwhelming,” said Lamphear, “but it is worth your time. There are a lot of resources out there to help students cover the cost of college.” More information about financial aid is available through FAME, FAFSA, the Lincoln Academy Guidance Office, and and the colleges themselves.