FAFSA? FASFA? SCHMAFSA? What's up with the financial aid process anyway?

This week's Boston Globe Sunday Edition featured an article "Daunting Federal college-aid form flunks with most families", by New York Times reporter, Tamar Lewin. The now 6 page federal student aid application is intended to provide a full financial snapshot by which financial aid professionals allocate (by a regulated formula) limited federal, state and institutional resources. However, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA, (sometimes erroneously called the FASFA) and the numerous other forms and information often required, are commonly, mistakenly thought as assessing a family's need.

No one is looking at the process or the resulting award letter and saying, "That was easy and now I can continue my life without any further financial sacrifices." Instead they are thinking "Why didn't I get a Pell Grant?", "Loans for college are considered financial aid?", "Where are all those scholarships for college everyone says are available?", and /or "There must be a mistake."

The process of asking for money is intimidating for everyone and more complicated by the misinformation in circulation.  I thought back to my experiences and consulted my financial aid community to provide you a list of what they wish you knew. Save yourself and the office, with which you will be working, time and angst by recognizing the following realities.

1. Comparisons between your family and another don't make sense when it comes to eligibility.  No one knows exactly what someone else makes or how they live.

2. Each institution has its unique endowments and enrollment goals, so institutional aid can and will vary widely. (Institutional aid is the college's money, so they determine how to best spend it.)

3. Despite any rhetoric, there really is no negotiating. While certain circumstances can be taken into consideration through a process called professional judgment, this is nothing like buying a car or even a house.

4. Calls are made from coaches and alumni to the financial aid offices, (FAO), but the FAO cannot bend the rules. Just as Admissions would not consider finances in its decision, financial aid is required by federal regulations, to not be swayed by non financial data.

5. You must have your student read and understand ALL correspondence from the financial aid office in mail and email. The FAO is working to help your student get through their education and welcomes his/her questions and yours.

6. Most financial aid administrators have caseloads in the hundreds, so to get an answer to a question, call, email or make an appointment.

7. The director of Financial Aid is not going to approve or deny all requests; your case is best known and worked by the individual assigned as your counselor. Make sure your student knows this person is his/her and your first resource for all questions and requests. 

8. The student owns this process in the eyes of the FAO. Encourage him/her to ask the office and you questions, and do not advise them to "just sign and don't worry." Most institutions have wonderful financial literacy resources and your student will miss a valuable life learning opportunity if you try and do everything for them.

9. Accuracy and documentation are the cornerstones of all appeals. Financial Aid professionals will be requesting lots of documentation and if you are looking to forecast a lost income, be cognizant that your severance and unemployment are resources that go into the calculation.

10. Apply early and honestly. Hidden assets are usually found and while the IRS offers income offsets like retirement contributions or asset depreciation, financial aid professionals add these back

However disheartened you might feel by the above realities, the process strives to be fair and the financial aid office wants to give you all the money they can. By working with these offices, you can save thousands of dollars. Another huge benefit is teaching your child about investing in her/himself and managing money responsibly.

Tags: financial aid process, financing options, fafsa

We help kids, teens, and young adults in crisis. Can we help you or your family?
Contact Us