Financial Aid

How Colleges REALLY Give Out Financial Aid

Six different financial aid package clues to uncover.

By Kathryn Knight Randolph

March 27, 2020

How Colleges REALLY Give Out Financial Aid
Just like no two college students are the same; financial aid packages differ from student to student as well as from college to college. Each institution has its own formulas for determining how much financial aid to award to each student, and some experts say that students and their families can glean how much financial aid they could potentially receive from a college by the language they use on their website, tours and in discussions with admissions officers. NACAC highlights the following financial aid categories into which colleges fall:

1. Standard Package

• Offer a majority of students the standard Federal funding options (federal loans, work study, etc.)
• Limited number of large scholarships for very high-achieving students
• Look for links to national scholarship programs on the website for a clue that the college is a “standard package college”

2. Institutional Commitment Package

• “Commitment” component of this package is to keep costs for students as low as possible
• Listen or look for phrases like “full need,” “limited loan” or “no loan”
• Highly selective colleges

3. Upfront Discount Package

• Website features multiple scholarship opportunities
• Financial aid is part of admissions discussions, providing students and their families a clear picture of cost of attendance fairly early in the process

4. We Will Negotiate Package

• Willing to compare financial aid packages from other colleges in order to provide a more enticing offer for students and their families
• Disperses a mix of federal student aid as well as institutional grant aid

5. Heavy Borrowing Package

• High cost of attendance with low scholarship funding
• Students may get a very minimal scholarship that does little to alleviate costs

6. Low-Cost, High-Quality Institution Package

• Typically community or lower-cost in-state colleges
• Some access to federal aid as well as scholarships for high-achieving students
Researching a college’s financial aid leanings should happen sooner rather than later. Don’t wait until financial aid packages begin arriving in late winter or early spring. In the fall, read the fine print on the financial aid website, ask admissions officers questions and pay special attention on college tours. Look for financial aid clues as you're looking at colleges; you'll be better informed when making college choice decisions.

What is Financial Aid? And How to Qualify

Regardless of where you attend college and how they disperse financial aid, applying for financial aid is the same everywhere. Students can qualify for financial aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – known more commonly as the FAFSA. The FAFSA becomes available to students every year on October 1. Though the FAFSA technically has an 18-month application cycle for federal financial aid, it’s important to complete the application as soon as possible – for two reasons. First, most financial aid is distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis, meaning those that fill the application out sooner rather than later have the advantage of potentially receiving more aid as opposed to those who wait until the last minute. The second reason is that states have their own FAFSA deadline. To qualify for state financial aid, you must submit the application before their designated deadline. Submitting the FAFSA after their deadline, though before the federal deadline of June 30, will not qualify you for state financial aid. In order to continue qualifying for financial aid, the FAFSA must be completed each year. The FAFSA requires information from the prior, prior tax year, meaning you will have all of the financial information necessary to apply on – or soon after – October 1. If you need help filling out the FAFSA, there are plenty or resources available to students and their parents. First, students and their parents can take advantage of extensive help from the Federal Student Aid Information Center. To reach the FSAIC, simply call 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). As you are filling out the FAFSA, there are also Help sections along the way, with common questions and answers. Finally, states will hold various FAFSA help events each year. Students and their parents or guardians can attend these events and get real, hands-on help answering questions and submitting the FAFSA. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when filling out the FAFSA. The goal of this form – and the entire process – is to help students successfully pay for and obtain a college education. Though the FAFSA can feel complicated at first, getting help with the form is simple.

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