When it comes time to choose a college or university at which to earn your degree, there are many things to consider. Does the school offer the degree you need? Are the class sizes small? Is the faculty highly qualified? Does the school have a good reputation? These and other questions are all important in making your final decision, but you must also remember to think about cost and about how much financial aid you will receive. Since colleges determine how financial aid is distributed differently, you may receive drastically different offers from one school to the next. To avoid nasty surprises regarding your financial aid, make sure to ask these vital questions:
- What amount of my financial need will be covered? When you complete your FAFSA, your expected family contribution, or EFC, is determined. The EFC IS calculated by a formula based on your family’s income and assets. This EFC is then deducted from the cost of your chosen college to determine your financial need. Since the EFC remains constant, the financial need amount can vary greatly from one college to another. Most colleges will attempt to meet your financial need through a combination of options including grants, loans, and work-study programs. Before you choose a school, ask for their standard amounts of work-study and loans provided.
- Is merit-based aid available? Many colleges and universities offer aid to students for exceptional talent in academics, music, sports, art, and other areas. If you have a special talent, check with the schools you are considering to see if you will be eligible for any merit-based aid. While some schools may offer none, others may offer you a very attractive scholarship that can greatly reduce your cost of attending.
- Is financial aid determined by the PROFILE form or the FAFSA? These forms consider different factors in determining the expected family contribution. Generally, the PROFILE form calculates a larger EFC than the FAFSA, resulting in a lower financial aid award amount. Check with schools to see which form they use to determine financial aid before making a commitment. You can get an estimate of your financial need by using calculators on college websites as a starting point.
- How are outside scholarships addressed? Some schools will deduct the amount of any outside scholarships you receive from your financial aid package. This can create a situation in which outside scholarships provide you with no overall benefit. Make sure the college you choose subtracts outside scholarships from your loan amount instead of from any grants you are eligible to receive.
- Will my financial aid package change after my freshman year? Find out the financial aid policies of the school you are considering. Ask for average financial aid amounts awarded after the freshman year so you won’t find yourself stuck with an unpleasant surprise.
- How much do typical students owe in student loans upon graduation? The amount of loans required by colleges can vary greatly. Find out what the average student owes upon graduation to get a good picture of how much debt you will have to acquire to pay for your education.
Before making a final decision about which college to attend, make sure to get the details on each school’s financial policies. By taking the time to do your research, you can be sure that you will get the best possible financial aid and that you will not be stuck with an excessive student loan debt when you graduate.