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Expert Advice on the Best Ways to Secure Financial Aid

Financial-aid By Jaquelyn Nealon for The Choice Blog

*This story originally shared on The Choice Blog for The New York Times.

Jacquelyn Nealon is vice president for enrollment, communications and marketing at New York Institute of Technology. She has worked in the admissions offices of Seton Hall, Hofstra, and Adelphi universities.

During 22 years of working in admissions, financial aid and enrollment, I’ve given hundreds of financial aid presentations to parents. As I prepared to send my first child off to college a few months ago, I found myself grappling with the same fears as my audiences.
 
As I went through the process with my family, I kept five financial aid tips in mind:
 
Be in It to Win It
So often, I hear parents and children say, “Why bother applying for financial aid or scholarships? I’m not going to get anything anyway.” Wrong. Every student should file the Fafsa (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Even if the student doesn’t qualify for grant money, colleges often will dig into their budgets to provide financing to woo a talented prospect.
 
Along the same lines, guidance counselors fret because students fail to apply for the scholarships offered by community groups or their own high schools. That’s unwise. Most times, it’s as simple as submitting a quick application or reusing a letter of recommendation. I also hear this: “I want to go to a college that cost $40,000 a year – why apply for a $750 grant?” I don’t know about you, but if I saw $750 on the ground with my name on it, I’d pick it up. That’s enough money to pay for a semester’s worth of textbooks or a Thanksgiving flight home.
 
Buyer Beware
Show me a vulnerable person, and I’ll show you a scam artist. The most common mistake I’ve seen this year is going to the wrong Web site to file the Fafsa. Make sure you’re on fafsa.GOV. A site with a similar name has the same questions, same colors… but you may be asked to provide a credit card number. Don’t. Remember, that first “F” stands for “free.”
 
In addition, legions of consultants and financial advisers help fill out forms and find free money – for a price. Some are reputable; you can check references. And yes, some will help you invest money and report your assets and income. But usually, you can read directions and do this yourself. Embrace the fact that there is no “secret,” no magic way to maximize your aid chances.
 
I Do! (In a Few Years)
The Fafsa asks a seemingly absurd question: “Who is considered a parent?” Yet frequently families react with frustration when I explain how the government defines parents for financial aid purposes. If both parents are alive and married to each other, they check off the “married” box and include their information on the Fafsa.
 
If there has been a divorce or legal separation, you need to determine who the student lived with more than 50 percent of the time the previous year. That’s the custodial parent. Only the custodial parent’s income and assets appear on the Fafsa; the noncustodial parent’s income and asset information don’t (though a child support question and another untaxed income question can reflect household support).
 
This is true even if the divorce arrangement says the noncustodial parent has to pay for the whole expense, or things are split evenly.
 
Here’s the surprise for some stepparents: Let’s say mom, the custodial parent, marries stepdad. Both mom and stepdad’s income and assets appear on the form. Maybe when they married they had a deal: he would pay for his children, she would pay for hers. Not happening. Of course, I don’t recommend holding off on saying, “I do!” (again) until after all the children have their degrees, but be aware of the rules.
 
Talk to Me
The government takes your information from the Fafsa, plugs it into a formula and comes up with the E.F.C., or estimated family contribution. The E.F.C. is the maximum you pay, not the minimum. Yet the Fafsa doesn’t ask about your mortgage, car insurance or credit card debt. In short, the E.F.C. might not be an accurate portrayal of what you can afford to pay.
 
Once your child is accepted, talk honestly to the financial aid office. They understand the information you provide on the Fafsa doesn’t show the whole picture. Colleges are allowed to exercise professional judgment in certain circumstances. What if dad or mom was laid off after last year’s income was reported? Or the parents got a divorce, or one parent died? Or if you had medical or dental expenses that exceeded your insurance?
 
The key is that the circumstances have to be unusual and documented for a college to override the government’s expectation of what you can pay. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get the answer you want, but it’s best to tell your story.
 
Be Real With Yourself
Everyone knows about applying to “safety,” “good match” and “reach” colleges. Your financial strategy should be the same. Make sure the wish list of colleges includes at least one or two that your child can afford. It might be a two-year community college, a state school or a low-price private institution. The list should include colleges that offer merit or need-based money. Don’t be daunted by those with $50,000 price tags; they often have scholarships, grants and need-based awards.
 
Most parents make the mistake of putting off these tough conversations until the child is admitted and puts on the college sweatshirt. I tell parents they need to make sure that they’re ready to buy a sweatshirt at every price point.

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