The first place to put your best foot forward for financial aid consideration with the school of your dreams is during the application and interview process. The second place is in your FAFSA submission, which we provided tips about last month. If you haven’t completed your FAFSA yet, be sure to attend your state’s College Goal Sunday event – being held around the country in late January/early February. But don’t forget about your prospective school’s Financial Aid Administrator. You can have their ear to state your case and raise any concerns about your aid package. Here is some insight to help you know how they can help you, thanks to a conversation with Jonathan Wexler, VP of Enrollment Management for Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU).
DO I NEED TO MAKE A SPECIAL GRANT REQUEST?
Generally schools automatically consider eligible applicants for all monies available – including federal grants, institutional scholarships, state grants, and federal loans. Non-institutional scholarships and private loans are things you need to pursue on your own. A handy guide to the world of grants can be found on My College Calendar.
IS EXTRA AID WORTH FIGHTING FOR?
Yes. Using rounded estimates, according to Jonathan, “FDU doled out an average of $19,500 towards the general $30,000 annual tuition cost in 2008.” If you feel your need based aid is not accurately reflected in the FAFSA figures, contact the school. If you are a finalist for a merit based institutional scholarship, do all that you can to set yourself apart in follow-up interviews or essays. Outside of the federal government, the school is likely the source of the highest aid available to you. The monies are available to those who are deserving and early to the party.
ARE FREE RIDES A RESONABLE EXPECTATION?
No. They are the exception. Even if tuition is completely covered, room & board is still a big expense sometimes equaling half of the tuition cost. GPA and other performance requirements each school year are often necessary to keep the good deal in place.
IS AN AID OFFER NEGOTIABLE?
Yes and no. If there have been changes to your family’s current year financial figures over the prior year’s you can submit a change of circumstance request with your school. According to Jonathan … “FDU personally responded to all of the approximate 500 appeals received in 2008 from the approximate 5,500 aid packages offered. Approximately 75% of those appeals held legitimate circumstances where we tried to entertain solutions. These solutions were personalized on a case by case basis.”
If you have received a better offer from another school, sharing that information with other schools may not be as helpful as you imagine. Jonathan states that “people like to share that kind of information during appeals, but we are doing what we can within our own budget and model. Other school’s offers don’t really have much of an impact.” However, he did also mention that “good students know” if they are highly desirable to a school and will do their own homework (i.e. research) when applying to begin with. The more desirable you are, the more likely a school will want to award their available resources to you. Letting them know how close or far apart they are from your other choices certainly doesn’t hurt your case. But essentially, each school is given a limited amount of funding to work with by the government. Institutional monies are the only flexibility they have and eligibility requirements must be met.
HOW DOES SCHOOL SIZE EFFECT MY AID PACKAGE?
State schools offer affordability to a broad range of students, provided they elect to stay in-state. Smaller private schools can compete with state schools often times by using need based financial awards to high need students with strong academics. Prolific higher cost private schools have trended towards an exclusive need based model (knowing competition for acceptance is high) whereas more affordable private institutions still combine merit awards with need, narrowing the gap in out of pocket expense. Knowing your school of choice’s aid model can help you see how you fit in their money pie.
ARE AWARD PACKAGES LOYAL TO RETURNING STUDENTS?
Yes and no. Merit based portions remain in place provided performance criteria is met from school year to school year. Need based portions are re-evaluated from school year to school year. The sooner you submit your FAFSA the earlier your school has your financials and the more likely you are to receive need based aid. Don’t assume your school will set aside need based funds for you from year to year just because you are a returning student. They have a fixed amount of money to dole out to needy students each year – first come first serve.
DOES ACCEPTANCE OF AN AID PACKAGE EQUATE COMMITMENT TO ATTENDING THE SCHOOL?
No. There are deadlines and deposits involved, but accepting an offer of aid does not mean you are obligated to attend the school. However, if you do not accept the aid package, away it goes. Accept those offers while they are out there and weigh your options as they come in. One school’s larger aid package may not result in a better deal for you. Overall college expense is key, in addition to commute, region, student to teacher ratio, work experience and of course, the biggest educational potential for the career path you choose.
ARE THERE NON-TRADITIONAL GRANT OPTIONS?
Work Study. Resident Assistants. Teaching Assistants. All of these are options you should be asking your school’s aid department about. While work study is generally built in to aid packages, you may need to be proactive about requesting RA and TA positions. While TA positions tend to be for graduate students, RA positions can be available to undergraduates and will help to reduce your Room & Board expense in exchange for monitoring your peers in the dorm.
DO MY CONNECTIONS REDUCE MY COST?
If you are related to an alumni, not only can it boost your admissions appeal, but it can reduce your tuition cost. Many schools also offer discounted rates to family members attending the same school together. The more the merrier as they say.
WHAT CAN THE AID DEPARTMENT DO FOR ME?
In addition to doling out aid packages, they can be a good resource for understanding the various aid outlets overall. As Jonathan points out, “FDU is unique in offering financial aid workshops to prospective students and members of the community, in addition to being available for one-on-one counseling.” Their next workshop is being held January 23rd and is open to the general public – details can be found here. Aid departments for any school should be available for questions about the FAFSA and you should ask them about informational aid programs that they provide. They may also point you in the right direction for state related scholarships and lenders, but generally these and private scholarship resources are things you will need to seek out directly.
Schools are not inaccessible entities randomly doling out fixed aid figures. They have aid departments and directors dedicated to matching students with the federal, state and institutional funds available. If they can’t make their school affordable to you, you can’t attend. You are an asset they want to invest in, so if you have questions or feel their assessment of your financial situation is off base, contact them. They do have budgets and models they have to work within, but the sooner you get your information in front of them the better your chances. And a personal conversation can go a long way.