Financial Aid Basics

Many high school seniors have spent winter break polishing college applications in the hope of getting into that dream school. Now it’s time for their parents to spend hours hunched over intimidating forms. Because getting into college is one thing, paying for it is another.

Very few families can pay $60,000 a year for a private college. That’s why the financial aid office is as important as the admissions office. They won’t necessarily give you what you want, but they’ll try to give you what you need.

Colleges that have a need-blind admission policy make their admissions decisions without even looking at whether a student has applied for financial aid. Most of the very selective schools fall in this category, and some of them also guarantee to meet demonstrated financial need. Some schools that try to be need-blind during the admissions process do consider financial need when they are taking students off a waiting list, since by that time, financial aid resources have often been depleted.

Most schools use the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine eligibility not only for federal and state aid, but also for their own institutional aid. The FAFSA can be filed beginning October 1, and if you do it online, you should receive a Student Aid Report within a few days. The most important piece of information on the report is the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is the figure the colleges will use in putting together financial aid packages. The difference between your EFC and the cost of attending is your financial need.

For example, if the annual, total cost of attending a school is $52,000 and your EFC is $14,000, your financial need is $38,000. The financial aid office will then put together a package of grants, loans and work-study to cover as much of the gap as possible.

While all schools will use the same EFC in addressing financial need, they can have very different ways of meeting that need. Some well-endowed schools have the ability and commitment to meet that need mostly or entirely through grants. This means a student can be blissfully debt-free at graduation.

Financial aid packages can vary even among schools that seem similar. A student’s third choice school may offer a lot of grant money while his first choice school’s package is primarily loans. Being able to graduate without facing years of monthly loan payments can be a very good reason to move school number three to the top of the list.

Students who plan to attend college in California may qualify for a Cal State Grant. Eligibility is based on grade point average (3.0 minimum) as well as financial need. Income and asset ceilings for Cal Grants are adjusted annually. The FAFSA and a GPA Verification Form (usually filed by the high school) must be filed by March 2. Even a student who plans to spend two years at a community college before transferring to a four-year institution should apply for a Cal Grant, which can be reserved for up to three years.

The earlier the better when it comes to applying for financial aid. Colleges have limited resources, and once the money is gone, that’s it.

Many private colleges also require the CSS Profile for awarding institutional financial aid.  A good website for financial aid information is

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