Top Financial Aid Tips to Know Before You Go to College

Last updated: Oct 8, 2019

If you’re like most college-bound students, you’ve been focusing all your energy on admissions tasks: the right courses, SAT and ACT tests, application essays, and application deadlines. Now, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to pay for college. Check out our top financial aid tips and little-known facts to help you get the biggest aid award possible.

A student discussing financial aid with her counselor

It's Not Necessary to Wait for Tax Season to Submit the FAFSA

You probably know that you’ll need to file the Free Application for Student Aid, or FAFSA, to qualify for federal financial aid opportunities, including the $120 billion in grants, loans and work-study money awarded to more than 13 million college students by the U.S. Department of Education.

What you may not know is that the FAFSA for the upcoming school year asks for tax returns from nearly two years prior. For example, the 2020-2021 FAFSA, which became available Oct. 1, 2019, asks for 2018 tax information. There’s no need to wait until April to complete the FAFSA, to file a tax return early, or to estimate tax information on the form.

Bottom line: Submit your FAFSA as soon as possible to be considered for more money and ensure you don’t miss any deadlines.

You Might Have to Apply for State and School-Based Aid Separately

States provide significant financial assistance to students, often in the form of grants and scholarships that do not need to be repaid. If you have been living in the same state for more than five years, you may qualify for even more aid than expected, and students who do not qualify for federal financial aid may still qualify for aid from their state. Each state has a different process for providing assistance to students. Reach out to your state grant agency for more information on how to apply.

In addition, the schools you’ve applied to may require you to fill out a separate application, like a CSS Profile, or opt in to be considered for merit-based scholarships.

Bottom line: Explore the financial aid opportunities offered by your state/target schools and apply for consideration.

Parents and a student reviewing college costs and financial aid

You May Qualify for More Aid Than You Think

Not planning to file the FAFSA because you believe your family’s income is too high? You could be missing out on lucrative awards. Contrary to popular belief, there is no “income cutoff” when it comes to college financial aid. Your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, is derived from four main factors: family size, total income, assets, and number of children in college.

The cost of each college is factored in as well. The more expensive a college is, the higher your EFC can be and still qualify for aid. Also, some colleges require filing a FAFSA to qualify for institutional awards and scholarships.

Bottom line: Fill out the FAFSA regardless of your financial situation.

Sticker Prices Aren’t Always as Scary as They Look

Does your dream school come with a hefty price tag? Don’t rule it out. Colleges with steep tuition costs can be very generous with financial aid, and many provide merit scholarships as an incentive for you to apply. Also known as tuition discounting, the practice can significantly reduce a school’s sticker price. In 2017-18, the average price at 404 private colleges was discounted by nearly 50 percent, according to a recent study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Bottom line: Don’t assume you can’t afford a school until you’ve received a financial aid offer.

A high school student comparing financial aid and award offers in his high school library

Comparing Award Offers Is the Key to Saving Money

If you’re accepted to your first-choice school, it may be tempting to immediately reject all other offers. Resist. It’s important to compare the financial aid packages awarded by each college before deciding. Another school may cost significantly less overall, enabling you to graduate with a lighter student debt load.

There are online calculators such as the BigFuture award comparison tool that can make this task easier. You also can do it yourself yourself using each college’s Net Price Calculator or the steps below.

  1. Tally all the costs of attending a school, including tuition, fees, room and meals, books and supplies, transportation, and personal expenses. This is your Cost of Attendance, or COA.
  2. Add up all the items in your award letter that are gift aid (grants and scholarships that do not need to be repaid).
  3. Subtract the total gift aid from the COA. This is the net price, which can be used to compare the true cost of each college. You can cover this cost with self-help aid (loans and work-study) or pay out of pocket.

Bottom line: The biggest aid package isn’t always the best. Focus on the net price of each school to determine your best value.

You Can Appeal Your Aid Package

Didn’t get the aid package you were hoping for at your dream school? You can appeal to try and boost your award. Students should mention whether there has been a change in their family structure such as a death or a divorce, a financial change such as a job loss, or if they have been affected by environmental events such as a drought, hurricane, or flood.

Another way that students can appeal for more aid is by leveraging other offers. If you received a very generous offer from a competing college, mention how much they are offering. This may lead the school to match or even surpass the competing college’s award.

Bottom line: If you need additional assistance to attend a school, appealing your aid award can help close the gap.

Want more information about scholarships and financial aid at USF? Visit the University Scholarships and Financial Aid Services website, or contact them at 813-974-4700