5-Step Checklist for Parents Seeking Financial Aid for College

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applying for college checklist

Your child will spend their senior year of high school worrying about their final grades, test scores, and college options. It’ll be a whirlwind for them, but it doesn’t have to be for you.

You can get a head start on figuring out how to pay for college by starting the hunt for financial aid.

Here are five actionable steps you should take once your child enters 12th grade. Feel free to print out this list and check off each step after completion to stay on track.

Step Note Done?
1. Complete the FAFSA The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) should take under an hour to complete, and it’ll connect your student with aid from a variety of sources.
2. Guide the search for scholarships and grants It’s not too late to apply for private scholarships or state grants that can help cut down the cost of higher-priced schools.
3. Estimate the cost of attendance Once you have a better idea of your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and gift aid awards, gauge the cost of your student’s top college choices.
4. Compare college award letters Compare various schools’ financial aid packages to decide which is the best fit for your family.
5. Consider federal and private student loans Learn about the differences between borrowing money from the Department of Education and private lenders, as each comes with pros and cons.

1. Complete the FAFSA

The first and most important step to receiving financial aid for college is to complete the FAFSA. It’s a gateway to federal aid, such as grants and loans. It’s also a requirement for other sources of funding, such as state grants and even private scholarships. That’s because the FAFSA gives donors a sense of your family’s financial need.

In fact, the FAFSA will use your most recent tax returns and other financial information to pump out your EFC. Schools use this dollar figure to decide your eligibility for federal and school-based aid.

The FAFSA application opens Oct. 1 annually, and it’s wise to complete it as soon as possible. This way, your student has the best possible chance at securing limited aid, such as the Pell Grant. To complete the application, head to the Federal Student Aid website. The whole process should take under an hour.

Between three days and three weeks, you and your child should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR summarizes your FAFSA responses and lists your EFC.

You’ll want to ensure your information is correct. You’ll be sending your FAFSA to up to 10 schools of your choice. Those schools will use this information to determine your aid allocation.

2. Guide the search for scholarships and grants

In addition to financial aid offered by the federal government and your student’s school, your family should also consider grants. Almost all states have generous grant programs.

Keep in mind that most grants are awarded based on financial need. If the results of your student’s FAFSA leaves you with a high EFC, you might want to spend more energy on scholarships that are merit-based. Your student could win scholarships for different reasons, such as for their grades, athletics, or extracurricular achievements.

You can find scholarships all over the place, including:

  • Your employer
  • Private organizations and companies
  • Scholarship search engines such as Fastweb

As a parent, defer the actual grant and scholarship applications to your child. You can be more useful as a source of motivation and encouragement as your child submits their scholarship applicprations.

3. Estimate the cost of attendance

It’s important for you and your student to take some time to consider the schools you can afford.

First of all, each school’s true cost of attendance goes way beyond tuition. It will also include big-ticket items such as room and board, plus smaller expenses such as books and supplies. You can compare annual school costs using the Department of Education’s College Navigator tool.

The College Navigator tool also reveals how much aid each school awards its students. The University of Oregon, for example, charged its in-state on-campus students $26,862 for the 2017-2018 school year. But, on the plus side, the average student receives $6,947 in grants and scholarships.

Once you confirm the cost of your student’s top college choices, run the numbers to see if they’re affordable. For each school, take the cost of attendance and subtract the EFC listed on your SAR.

Cost of attendance – EFC = Financial need

The remainder represents your family’s financial need, which can be filled by any of the following:

  • Scholarships and grants
  • Additional family savings
  • Federal grants, work-study opportunities, federal student loans, and private student loans

4. Compare college award letters

While your child checks the mailbox — or these days, inbox — for college acceptance letters, you should keep an eye out for award letters. If you receive one but not the other, contact the school’s financial aid office.

The award letter reveals the financial aid package your child can receive at a school. Because many schools expect you to accept or deny this offer by May 1 of your child’s senior year, you should be on the lookout for it to arrive early in the spring.

Ideally, you and your student will have a few college award letters to compare. To ensure you’ll make accurate comparisons, don’t focus on each school’s cost of attendance. Instead, figure and consider your net costs — that is, each school’s cost of attendance minus the gift aid offered. The math looks like this:

Cost of attendance – Gift aid offered = Net cost

What’s left over will need to be covered elsewhere, either via income and savings (yours or your child’s) or by taking on debt.

If your family’s finances have changed significantly since you completed the FAFSA, you could speak with your student’s preferred school to negotiate a better aid package. But be prepared to prove why you might deserve additional need-based gift aid.

5. Consider federal and private student loans

When comparing schools, you’ll need to consider the amount of debt you’ll need to take on to afford the cost of attendance.

For example, you might deprioritize a school that suggests you borrow twice as much in loans as another school. The award letters you receive might also nudge you to borrow federal Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized Loans.

Once you’ve found the school that’s an academic and financial fit for your student, hammer home the fact that borrowing money comes with consequences.

Say your son or daughter needs to borrow $5,000 in unsubsidized loans from the federal government. Explain that they’ll be repaying that amount with interest once they leave school. A federal loan of that size at the 2017-2018 interest rate of 4.45%, for example, would cost $6,204 over the standard 10-year repayment plan, according to our student loan payment calculator.

Also, take the award letter with a grain of salt when it comes to loans. What the school suggests your family borrow to afford its cost of attendance is not how much you have to borrow.

After reviewing the differences between federal and private loans, you might decide to maximize your federal loan allotments because of the greater protection offered by the Department of Education. On the other hand, you might decide that your stellar credit history could help you score a lower interest rate with top private lenders.

Whether you’re choosing between loans or looking for other aid, remember that the right choice for another family might not be the best for yours. Follow this five-step checklist to put you and your student in a position to succeed.

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Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality and will make a positive impact in your life. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print understand what you are buying, and consult a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time. Please do your homework and let us know if you have any questions or concerns.