From our experience, most families are concerned about financial aid. And rightfully so. Some colleges are very clear on how much financial aid a family will receive, while other colleges are less transparent. This ambiguity creates a lot of anxiety, but there are a few tools that can help families get a handle on the cost of college.
One tool that can help families is the Net Price Calculator. In 2011, the federal government issued a mandate that colleges provide the calculator on their websites to help families understand the actual cost of that college. Theoretically, families enter in some basic financial information, like the size of your household and annual income, and it tells you how much you can expect to pay at a given school. However, some estimates don't come close to what the colleges actually offer at the end of the process. Even though this is a great step forward, there is still a need for more clarity.
This year, the FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid will make a small but significant change that could greatly improve financial aid transparency, making it easier for families to make informed college decisions. Parents will now be able to submit the FAFSA in October of their child’s senior year using what’s called prior-prior-year (PPY) tax information from their child’s junior year. This will mean that families will have a more accurate understanding of what they’ll be financially responsible for well before their child chooses a college.
As policies continues to shift, there are things that you can do to help create financial aid opportunities:
- Do your research: use the Net Price Calculators on the websites of schools your child is considering to get a rough idea of your family’s contribution, and talk to your child if you think it's out of your family's budget.
- Talk to your high school counselor and learn about financial aid opportunities: counselors are knowledgeable about possible scholarships in your area, and often host financial aid presentations at your high school.
- Create a balanced college list: 90-95% of the money available for college comes from the colleges themselves. Your best bet for an affordable education is to apply to schools where you are a good academic and personal fit.
- Make sure you fill out the appropriate forms (by the deadline): waiting until the last minute to fill out the forms can jeopardize your opportunity to receive financial aid. All colleges list what forms they require and important dates on their websites.