Parents ask me all the time, “Where can my child receive the best college financial aid package?” In the past, I deflected the question. I’m an essay coach; the money piece is not in my wheelhouse, I would say.
But the paying-for-college question fuels anxiety, incites confusion, and diminishes what could otherwise be a positive, finding-the-right-college experience for a family. And as a parent who’s been through the application process three times, I can relate.
Nowadays I try to help parents offload some of the stress by being informed enough to point them toward dependable resources and the sound advice of people whose business it is to know this stuff.
One of my go-to resources when it comes to understanding the ins and outs of financial aid is JoAnn McCullough, executive director of IMANI, whose College Advocacy Center supports many first-generation college prospects.
“There are some 4,000 U.S. colleges and universities, and every school addresses financial need differently,” McCullough says.
That’s the bad news. The good news is financial aid is available. It just may take some research to find it.
According to The Washington Post, each year some 2 million students who are eligible for financial aid don’t apply for it. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (fafsa.ed.gov), or FAFSA, is the form the government and colleges use to help students access more than $150 billion in available grants, loans, and work-study money. FAFSA recently moved up the window for submitting these forms from January to October of senior year, which will help schools be more timely than they’ve been in the past about delivering notifications on financial aid packages.
The FAFSA can be tricky to fill out, and the Post recently published a guide with useful tools that may help.
Timing matters. According to the Post article, the sooner the FAFSA is submitted, the better a student’s chance of receiving more money, as some state schools award aid on a first-come, first-served basis.
Some 400 schools also accept the College Scholarship Service Profile, or CSS Profile (cssprofile.collegeboard.org), a College Board platform that helps schools award non-federal aid to eligible students.
As application season approaches, during the fall of a student’s senior year in high school, McCullough meets with her students—IMANI helps up to 40 annually—and parents, and the financial aid conversation begins.
“The conversation should start with what a student is looking for in a college and a list of schools that meet those criteria,” McCullough says. Once students have created a college list, McCullough reviews it with the parent and student, sometimes making suggestions to round out the list with schools known to provide generous support.
At this point, the deep dive into financial aid begins.
You might think there are rules of thumb, such as, small, private liberal arts schools don’t have much aid to give. McCullough says that’s not necessarily the case.
“When the information is available, we research whether a school has given need-based assistance in the past and at what rate. Some of those small and not-so-small private colleges are heavily endowed and can afford to provide full or a significant percentage of tuition,” McCullough says. As examples, she cites Oxford College of Emory University (in Atlanta) and Cooper Union (in New York City).
McCullough points to Naviance (naviance.com), the College Board (collegeboard.com) and Peterson’s (petersons.com) as data-rich college search engines with financial aid information about specific schools and their capacity for providing financial support.
Sites like COLLEGEdata (collegedata.com) direct students to merit-based grants and scholarships.
After the aid packages arrive, there may still be a gap between what your family can pay and what the government and colleges are able to provide. Keep in mind the scholarship money offered by a huge array of organizations looking to provide support. Left-handed? Suffer from sleepwalking? Child of an immigrant? There may be financial aid to match your life situation.
Organizations like My Scholly (myscholly.com) help students connect with niche scholarships that often go untapped. The snag is that each scholarship application typically asks for an essay or two, so the extra work for an already-busy student may be an issue.
Student loans are a common way to meet remaining need. I’m a big fan of The New York Times’ financial writer Ron Lieber, who often provides reality checks on paying for college. Last spring, Lieber published a student loan calculator (https://tinyurl.com/hfplcdg) to help students figure out how long it would take to pay back the debt of financing college.
McCullough encourages her students to do their research and to stay open-minded.
“I am confident there is a best-fit school for every student who wants to attend college,” she says. “And cost — scholarships, grants, financial aid, work-study — is part of measuring that fit.”
A version of this post appeared in my "College Bound” column in Montclair Local.