Follow this advice from local and national experts to get the most financial aid possible for your college-bound son or daughter – or yourself.
utting a child through college is an expensive endeavor. With college costs constantly increasing, it only makes sense that many families need to seek out ways to secure as much funding as feasible.
You already know the basics: Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA), don’t miss the deadlines and so on. But if you’re looking to maximize the financial aid opportunities available to your child, follow these tips from the pros.
1. Submit your application immediately
It’s best to turn in your FAFSA right away, says Brian Singleton, vice chancellor of student services at the Wayne County Community College District.
“Students should complete their FAFSA as early as possible, preferably prior to March 1,” he says. “This provides them with a better opportunity to receive aid that is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.”
Those opportunities include the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) and Federal Work-Study Program, Singleton says.
Families who don’t have all the tax information they need are allowed to estimate their income and other tax return details and then correct it later after taxes have been filed, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“We encourage them to fill out (the FAFSA) as soon as possible,” echoes Megan McClean, managing director for policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, based in Washington, D.C. “With some of the states the money is like a funnel; there’s a finite amount of money.”
2. Don’t make these mistakes
According to the U.S. Department of Education, common FAFSA mistakes include sending in an incomplete application, entering incorrect Social Security Numbers or rushing through important questions about household size and guardianship.
It’s also a mistake to assume you won’t be eligible for financial aid because of your income. Many students don’t apply for this reason, but there’s no income cutoff for federal aid, according to the department.
Singleton says other common mistakes include applying late and failing to send in all requested documentation as soon as possible.
3. Apply for lesser-known grants and scholarships
Thousands of scholarships are offered each year by schools, employers and other organizations throughout the country. Scholarships do not need to be repaid.
Students are encouraged to use online scholarship search engines to find out about lesser-known scholarship opportunities, Singleton says.
“They should check their college’s website, check with any organizations that they or their parents are involved in, as well as their church,” he says.
McClean says students should contact the schools they’ve attended – even elementary schools – to find out if any grants or scholarships are available. Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and other local organizations are also good places to ask.
A free college scholarship search tool offered by the U.S. Department of Labor is at CareerOneStop.org.
4. Talk to your college
Whether you didn’t get the financial aid you thought you would or you still can’t make it work financially, talk to the financial aid advisor at your college, McClean recommends. There may be additional options and avenues.
“We encourage families to really talk to the financial aid officers at the institution,” she says. “That’s what they’re there to do – they’re there to help.”
Singleton agrees: “Oftentimes, we can make them aware of aid that they did not know about or we may have additional gift grants and/or scholarships that they may be eligible for.”
5. Have the right attitude
It can be difficult to spend so much time filling out applications and writing essays for scholarships when you feel like your chances of getting chosen are slim. But it’s too important to let the opportunity pass by.
“Make sure that you understand all of the financial aid options that are available to you,” McClean says. “Even if you think you may not qualify, there could be other things that would be available to you.”
Don’t just send off your financial aid applications or documentation and forget about them, Singleton advises.
“It is important to follow up once documents have been submitted to make sure the school has received them,” he says. “Most schools will provide a timeline, so if it is taking longer than expected, a student would definitely want to be in contact with the school.”
Students should also review their college’s website for important dates and to better understand the process, he says.