When families begin looking at the cost of college, their jaws often drop. And understandably so — the sticker prices of many institutions, especially private schools, can be intimidating!
As you begin planning how to pay for college, start by not being afraid of the sticker price. At most schools, few families actually write a check for the full amount. Before you can make an informed decision, and before you immediately write off those schools that gave you sticker shock, you must wait for the net price. That is based on how much you will pay out of pocket, how much you will pay with loans and how much you will pay with money awarded to you by the federal government, state and institution.
You can reduce your net price by filling out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which can be filled out online. From the information you input, the federal government calculates your EFC, or Expected Family Contribution, which tells colleges how much you are able to pay. Then, colleges are able to put together your financial aid package with a better idea of you and your family’s needs.
A financial aid package can include grants, loans, state programs and college scholarships. This is the information you’ll need to wait for before you know your net price of attending a particular school.
Here are some quick tips to remember as you start this process yourself.
1. The first F in FAFSA stands for free!
Do not fill out anything that comes with an application fee.
2. Make sure you’re using the correct website to fill out your forms.
If the form you’re looking at says you have to pay, you’re in the wrong spot!
3. Submit your FAFSA as early as possible.
Every year, the FAFSA form for the following academic year becomes available on October 1 and is due at the end of June the next year. However, even with that lengthy timeframe, you will be best served by completing your FAFSA as quickly as you can, as many institutions award funding on a first-come, first-serve basis.
4. Take care in filling out your form.
Double-check everything you submit to make sure it’s accurate. Mistakes — especially regarding salary information — will generate an inaccurate EFC (Expected Family Contribution), so verify all your numbers in addition to making sure you entered them correctly. Save all related documents for later reference, both in conversations with financial aid officers and future FAFSAs.
5. Keep track of college deadlines.
Every college may have its own deadline for financial aid purposes, separate from the official FAFSA deadline. Check with the college(s) you’re interested in attending, and you may also want to ask the college about its definition of an application deadline — is it the date your FAFSA form is processed, or the date that the college receives your processed FAFSA data?
College financial aid offices are great resources — this is what they do! Don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and ask whatever questions you may have — they’ve heard them all. Everyone has a unique story, and FAFSA is only part of it. Contact a financial aid officer to talk about circumstances that affect your ability to pay that may not show up on your FAFSA. Remember — these college offices are there to help and to welcome you to their class!
Finally — take it all one step at a time, and don’t forget to breathe. You’re not alone — just call your favorite admissions and financial aid office for more information.