As a student (or parent) it can be easy to focus solely on the college application process, and completely forget about financial aid. You spend so much time studying for the SATs (or ACTs) and tweaking your college essay so it perfectly represents you, that after you’ve been accepted and the reality of tuition payments set in, you might feel momentary panic.
It’s no secret that college tuition is expensive. Students and parents save for years to pay for higher education, but sometimes that’s just not enough. According to a Sallie Mae® study, “How America Pays for College 2021 ,” parent income and savings covered 45% of college costs while student income and savings covered 8% of the costs.
Many of us rely on financial aid to bridge the payment gap. Financial aid may come from multiple sources, including scholarships, grants, work-study, federal student loans, and private student loans.
Scholarships and grants are extremely useful forms of financial aid, since students are not typically required to pay back the money they receive. An online survey of students and parents found 72% of college families in 2021 relied on scholarships and grants to cover a portion of college expenses, according to Sallie Mae’s study.
Scholarships, grants, and savings often aren’t enough to cover the cost of attending college. Sallie Mae says 47% of college families borrowed money to help pay for college in 2021. Some families used home equity loans and credit cards, but federal student loans represented the most frequently used source of borrowed money followed by private student loans.
To top it all off, the financial aid application process can be confusing. Between federal aid and other scholarships, it can be difficult to keep everything straight.
Most often, the first step in applying for financial aid is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). You can begin filling out the FAFSA on October 1 for the following academic year. The federal FAFSA deadline for the 2023–24 academic year is June 30, 2024, but you’ll likely want to file well before the school year starts – colleges and states may have their own FAFSA deadlines.
Some schools use an additional form to determine scholarship aid — the College Scholarship Service Profile .
Taking the effort to apply for financial aid early can have a positive impact on your tuition bill. Below we highlight seven financial aid secrets you should know.
1. Decision Day vs Summer Melt
May 1 is usually decision day, the deadline when prospective college students must decide which college they plan to attend in the fall. But even after this deadline, students can change their minds. This phenomenon is known to industry professionals as “summer melt,” and sometimes it’s triggered by FAFSA verification setbacks.
Students who receive insufficient need-based financial aid, for example, might be compelled to reconsider their college enrollment decisions. Summer melt can give you an opportunity to select a more affordable school for you if you’ve encountered a FAFSA verification roadblock.
Summer melt is a common problem that causes schools to lose students during the summer. Because of this, schools may have a bit of secret wiggle room in their acceptance policy to admit new students over the summer for the fall semester.
2. Writing a Letter
You might be able to take advantage of summer melt with this secret: write a letter. After you get your financial aid offer, you could write a letter to your school’s financial aid office to open the lines of communication.
Let them know how excited you are to attend school in the fall. That’s where you could include a thoughtfully worded inquiry for any additional aid that you might qualify for as a result of summer melt.
When students decide to switch schools or not attend at the last minute, it means that they also won’t be using their financial aid award — which could now be available to other students.
3. Calling the Financial Aid Office
Another way to potentially take advantage of summer melt is to call your school’s financial aid office. Instead of calling immediately after you receive your financial aid award, think about calling in June or July. This allows financial aid offices time to account for students who have declined their financial aid packages.
An appropriately timed call to the financial aid office at your school could mean additional financial aid is allocated to your package — no guarantees, of course, but it never hurts to ask.
4. Submitting Paperwork and Applications On Time
Every school’s financial aid office has to follow a budget. Some financial aid is offered on a first-come, first-served basis, so it helps to submit forms, like the FAFSA, and other applications, on time or even ahead of schedule.
You may be out of luck if you apply for assistance after your university’s financial aid office has met their budget for the year. Some states have early winter deadlines for awarding scholarships and grants. Tennessee residents, for example, must complete their FAFSA by February 1 to be considered for a state-funded Tennessee Student Assistance Award grant.
You can check the deadlines for financial aid in your state through the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid website .
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5. Being Prepared
Have the basics ready to go before you sit down to fill out the FAFSA. If you have all of the information you need before you begin filling out the FAFSA, you’ll likely have an easier time filling out the information.
Usually, each parent and the student will need to create a username and password, which is called the Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID). You’ll also need:
• Social Security numbers (for you and your parents)
• Bank statements and records of untaxed income (possibly)
• You and your parents’ tax returns (aid awards are based on income from two years ago)
• Any W2 forms
• Net worth calculations of your investments (for students and parents)
6. Being Wary of Services that Charge You for Help
If you need assistance filling out the FAFSA, avoid any services that charge you. The first F of FAFSA stands for “Free,” so there is no need to pay for a service to fill the form out for you.
If you need assistance filling out the FAFSA, there are plentiful online resources through the U.S. Department of Education .
7. Filing the FAFSA Every Year
For every year you are a student and want to receive federal aid, you’ll have to file the FAFSA. Get in the habit of filing it every fall, so you’re closer to the top of the financial aid pile.
Scholarships and grants can be super helpful additions to a federal financial aid package. The money can reduce your tuition bill and doesn’t usually need to be repaid. Work-study can also be beneficial in helping college students make ends meet.
If you need additional help financing your college experience, SoFi offers private student loans with an entirely digital application process and no fees whatsoever. Potential borrowers can choose between a variable or fixed interest rate and have the option to add a cosigner to the loan.
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