There's more than FAFSA to getting financial aid
5 Things FAFSA Doesn't Tell You
by Goldie Ector
College is quite the milestone, and when the time comes to pay tuition, it can also be a frustrating lesson in bureaucracy. If you're not careful, you could end up paying out more than you planned.
A ton of information is not given during the application process. When you pull up fafsa.ed.gov, the first thing you see is the giant "Start a new FAFSA" button, and not the itty-bitty link that takes you to StudentAid.gov, which holds all of the federal rules and regulations. Students dive right into plugging in their information without knowing what any of it means. Please take an opportunity to read through those rules, but in the meantime, here are five things FAFSA doesn't tell you.
Different Schools, Different Rules
While the federal government has set-in-stone rules, there are also rules that are left up to the discretion of the universities. Deadlines, for example, are often left up to the schools within certain confines. This issue mostly trips up transfer students, but it can also catch students who are shopping around. Read the college website and call their offices to make sure that you have a full understanding of how things work there. This can save you a lot of time.
The Institution May Not Accept Your FAFSA Information As Is
As guardians of the federal purse, schools are required to make sure they are using the most accurate information. While you may think you know what the FAFSA is asking for, chances are that you actually don't. Schools might verify the original information and make changes based on what they find out. This means that if your student aid report says you are Pell eligible and suddenly you're not, it's because a change was made by the college. You are allowed to contact the financial aid office to find out why. Don't bother calling the Federal Processor (FAFSA). They have no clue.
This can also work in your favor. For instance, if a student reported their house as an asset (which for financial aid purposes, it isn't), then they may be reported as having more income than they actually do. Asking for a correction through the financial aid office may help.
Awards Do Not Always Cover Tuition Costs
According to College Board, the average cost of a four-year public institution for in-state students is $9,410 and $31,410 for a private institution. Both have the same federal limits. For the 2015-2016 aid year, the most an independent, freshman student could receive was $15,275, which is fine for a public institution, but for a private institution, the student would fall short several thousands of dollars. While scholarships and non-federal aid can help, that money is not guaranteed. Knowing how much federal aid will cover can help you decide whether high-interest private or PLUS loans are needed, or whether to attend a different institution.
Academic Performance Matters
Students must earn their financial aid. It's a lot like having a job. You get paid for the work you do, but only if you do the work. In this case, your job is being a decent student, not a superstar, but decent. As of this writing, students are required to maintain a 2.0 overall GPA and complete more than 67% of all credits attempted. Failure to meet these and other school-specific requirements will cause the financial aid office to withhold all future disbursements of financial aid. Luckily, most institutions have an appeal process. If the appeal is denied, the student may be required to pay out-of-pocket for a semester or use high-interest private loans.
You're Out of Money
The FAFSA form will not tell students who max their aid eligibility. If there is a break in communication between the student and the lender (forgot to submit a change of address, for instance), the student may not know that they have reached their limit until the financial aid office breaks the news. For some students, this information comes too late. They've already been locked into their classes with a bill and purchased their books. Check the National Student Loan Data System at nslds.ed.gov to make sure everything is okay and to make an informed decision about how to proceed.
Calculator: Are you taking on too much student loan debt?
The importance of keeping in touch with your school's financial aid office cannot be stressed enough. A simple phone call can save time and money. Often, high-interest private loans do not have the same repayment benefits as Stafford loans, such as a grace period and deferment or forbearance options. Suddenly, you find yourself paying more than what your degree may be worth. Many who do not plan ahead find themselves with crippling debt and no degree at all. The FAFSA will not tell you everything you need to know about college financial aid. Contact your financial aid office for more information.
Reviewed February 2018
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