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Tips and Tricks for Navigating College Financial Aid

by Debbie Malewicki of USA Tutors

Recognizing that a college degree is expensive is important, but understanding your options is vital to determine the best choices for your family.

Many people realize community colleges are a great alternative for students on a career path where an associate’s degree or professional certification are optimal, but it’s also an excellent choice for the four-year school bound student who needs more time to mature personally and/or academically, and it can be a great money saver for students who transfer to a Connecticut state university as the articulation agreement between the CT Community College and State University systems means that students earning acceptable grades in a class automatically see those credits count towards their degree. As a bonus, as of August 2021, CT community college tuition is FREE to students who graduated from a CT high school this year, enroll full time, and maintain the required GPA.

If you’re like many parents, though, your teenager has set their heart on a four-year school and wants the traditional college experience that includes tuition, room, and board expenses that will run between $25 and $75k annually before financial aid.

Here are some insights into the financial aid process:

1. Submit the FAFSA as close to Oct. 1st as possible because financial aid is a first-come, first-served program. (CT community colleges require it for the free program too.)

2. While it’s important to be honest in completing the FAFSA, don’t disclose assets that they don’t request. For example, checking account balances and certain retirement accounts aren’t requested, but if you choose to disclose them then the DOE and the schools are entitled to count them as money you’re capable of putting towards your child’s education as part of their Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which means they decrease the aid package they will offer.

3. Hundreds of colleges now require the CSS as well. Whether it’s the CSS or another internal form, it is in addition to, NOT in place of, the FAFSA. It’s also more detailed. Be sure there are no discrepancies between the two forms. Hints: The CSS or other secondary forms typically come via a link through your student’s school portal. Unsurprisingly, most students either overlook this email or ignore it not realizing that the school reserves the right to not offer financial aid until they receive it.

4. There are four types of financial aid. A typical package from a school is a combination of them, but some packages are more advantageous than others once you understand the differences in types of aid.

  • Tuition discounts/Grants are gifts that don’t require repayment.
  • Scholarships also don’t require repayment, although it’s critical to understand that the number of students who will see a full ride scholarship or close to it is exceptionally low, even for straight A students and top athletes.
  • Loans do require repayment, and when they come due is as important as the interest rate and repayment terms. While there are parent-focused loans and student-focused loans, generally larger amounts are reserved for mature adults with an established income.
  • Federal Work Study (FWS) provides on-campus jobs so that students work to earn this money. These are typically minimum-wage jobs such as shelving books in the library or swiping cards in the gym.

5. It is not unusual for a school to offer a financial aid package that’s predominantly to entirely loans and FWS monies. You need to decide if it’s acceptable to your family. I suggest having someone work with your teen to draw up a projected budget upon graduation and in five-year increments so they can see the impact of the loans on their future.

6. It’s vital that you read the fine print with any financial aid option.

  • Know when loans come due.
  • Understand that there are circumstances under which you can lose your financial aid package and immediately see loans come due, typically associated with credits earned and GPA.
  • Check if tuition discounts are for one year, two, or all four.
  • Realize that intersession classes are almost always full price.

7. Sometimes it’s possible to negotiate on financial aid offers, usually for smaller changes such as FWS, but ultimately your family needs to decide what they’re willing and able to pay.

Perhaps most importantly, apply early, often, and over your student’s schooling for scholarships through community organizations, religious houses, groups supporting the area your student wants to study, and more.

Why choose us? Whether you need focused help completing the FAFSA or weighing competing financial aid packages or want guidance through the whole college prep. process, we offer a unique team of experts to guide you.  Our team includes people who have worked as admissions directors, financial aid counselors, university directors, & faculty who have sat on admissions committees.  We can help you determine your best path on multiple levels & then how to bring it to fruition based upon our decades of experience on the receiving end of the application process.

If you have any questions related to college financial aid, any kind of tutoring or would like to chat with Debbie Malewicki, please visit USA Tutors to schedule a courtesy call.