By Murray Miller
Figuring out how to fund your college education can be overwhelming. If you’ve already been hunting around, it’s clear that there’s a massive amount of financial aid information on the web. Knowing where to look and what you should be looking for when you’re applying for grants, scholarships, and other need-based financial aid can save you a huge amount of time and frustration.
Here are 3 steps for getting started with financial aid research:
1. Determine what percentage of financial need each college on your list has met historically.
All things being roughly equal, wouldn’t you rather attend a more generous school compared to a stingy one? StudentAdvisor’s college profile pages offer information on what percentage of financial need has been met based off recent Department of Education data. Select a school from this list of US colleges to get started.
2. Determine how that college meets need.
This is the breakdown between free stuff (grants and scholarships) and self-help (loans/work study). Two colleges could meet the same overall percentage of need, but your financial aid could be vastly different between the two.
3. Pin down the priority deadlines!
Some schools require forms as early as November 1! Others may want you to file by February 15th. Make sure you research deadlines for each college on your list, since a lot of financial aid is first come, first served.
Now, a quick word on how to use the information uncovered in #1 and #2…
The ‘formula’ used by each school to determine your financial aid award is as follows: COA (Cost of Attendance) – EFC (Expected Family Contribution) = Need. Schools award financial aid based on how much need you show. As noted above, once you identify the percentage of need that your college meets, you have a decent handle on what your award will look like. Here is a simplified example:
Assume two colleges with a $50,000 Cost of Attendance and a $25,000 EFC. Your Need is $25,000. If “College A” meets 100% of need, you’ll receive an award of about $25,000 and your cost will be your EFC of $25,000. However, only the most elite, competitive colleges in the country will meet 100% of need. Most do not.
If “College B” only meets 80% of need, you may only receive $20,000 in aid, and you’ll have to pay about $30,000 (this is your EFC + the 20% unmet portion). So your total out of pocket for one year at the second school is $5,000 more than the first school, even though their sticker prices may be the same.
Where to Look for the Answers
How can you find this information? Always check the official websites for each college. Understand that you will have to click around for a while – colleges don’t make this information easy to find. Typically there will be a section of a college website dedicated to the financial aid department. Sometimes this information can be tucked away on an admissions or prospective student section. If you’re having trouble finding information on the school website, you can also call the financial aid office. But we warned – you may end up frustrated by the lack of responsiveness, according to most of the parents we work with.
If your’e still feeling lost you’d be well-served to consult a qualified college finance specialist. For example, our firm has all of this information at our fingertips and we get a lot of it directly from the colleges and some from the Department of Education. Our Smart Track™ Toolkit website has the tools (many of them for FREE) to help you project what each college will award within a small margin of error, and suggest legal and ethical ways to qualify for more grants and scholarships than you would on your own. No matter whether you seek out expert help or do it yourself, preparation and research can pay off in a big way.
Don’t put it off or you could lose out – on tens of thousands of dollars in financial aid.
Murray Miller is a financial educator devoted to the college planning space for over a decade. Murray is the President and CEO of the College Resource Center, LLC. You may contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 800-863-9440. For more information, including a schedule of free college workshops, visit www.SmartTrackToolkit.com. Connect with us Smart Track on Facebook and Twitter.