Top Six Financial Aid Tips for Parents

Last updated: Jan 15, 2020

Starting the financial aid process is a lot like diving into a bowl of alphabet soup. FAFSA, EFC, CSS Profile, SAR – what do they all mean? Where should you begin? What’s most important? If you want to help your child reduce the cost of college without becoming a financial aid officer, never fear. Our top six financial aid tips for parents highlight the key points to help you get the most money for college.

A student and his father discuss financial aid with a college counselor

Tip 1: Financial Aid Deadlines May Be Earlier Than Application Deadlines

Don't give colleges a reason to deny you the money you're eligible to receive by missing deadlines. Often, colleges have a deadline for scholarships or financial aid that’s earlier than the application deadline. For example, USF’s final application deadline is March 1; however, the deadline to be considered for admissions scholarships is Jan. 15.

Students and parents who are laser-focused on the application deadline sometimes miss critical financial aid deadlines. It helps to make a calendar of important dates at your child’s target schools so that nothing falls through the cracks.

Tip 2: Always Fill Out the FAFSA Form

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is your ticket 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.

Regardless of your family’s financial situation, you should ALWAYS fill out the FAFSA. You may qualify for more aid than you think! It takes about an hour to complete the FAFSA online, and you’ll need a few key documents, like your driver’s license, W2s, bank statements, etc.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no “income cutoff” when it comes to college financial aid. Based on the information provided in your FAFSA, the Department of Education will determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is a number used to calculate how much financial aid your child is eligible to receive. This number is about more than just your paycheck and takes into consideration family size, income from other sources, assets, and the number of children you have in college.

The more expensive a college is, the higher your EFC can be and still qualify for aid. Also, some colleges require filing a FAFSA form to qualify for institutional awards and scholarships.

Don’t Delay – File the FAFSA Form ASAP

The FAFSA is released every year on Oct. 1, but many parents make the mistake of waiting until tax season to file it. This isn’t necessary and often can cause you to miss deadlines or to qualify for less aid.

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.

A college applicant helps her mother as she compiles family financial data

Tip 3: Review Your Child’s SAR

A few days after submitting the FAFSA online, your child will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) via email. You should review the SAR to ensure all the information is accurate. The SAR also will show your EFC. If you believe the information you provided on the FAFSA may not reflect your current family and financial situation, contact the college’s financial aid office to ask them for help. The college’s financial aid office may be able to take the additional information into account when determining your child’s financial aid award.

Tip 4: Find Out if You Need 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.

A female graduate in cap and gown holds her diploma and stands with her father

Tip 5: Compare Award Offers

College financial aid offices typically start working on the financial aid packages for admitted students in January and February. Financial aid award letters usually are issued in late March and early April. Unless they applied for early decision or early action, most students will have until May 1, National College Decision Day, to decide whether to accept the college’s offer of admissions and financial aid.

Use this time to carefully compare the financial aid packages awarded by each college before deciding. The biggest aid package isn’t always the best. Focus on the net price of each school to determine your best value.

There are online calculators such as the BigFuture award comparison tool that can make this task easier. You also can do it 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.

Tip 6: You Can Appeal the Award Offered

If you don’t get the financial aid package you’re hoping for, don’t panic. You can appeal and potentially boost your award.

If there has been a change in your family structure such as a death or a divorce, a financial change such as a job loss, or if you have been affected by environmental events such as a drought, hurricane, or flood, contact the financial aid office at each school where your child was accepted and let them know. Under these circumstances, they may be able to revise your aid package.

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.