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Introducing Your Financial Aid Officers: Who They Are and What They Do
Financial aid is a tremendous resource and a tool that can make college affordable for a far greater range of high school students than could pay for college out of pocket. However, since accessing financial aid involves submitting lengthy paperwork, navigating complex policies, and waiting for decisions to be made by institutions, it can also be a major source of stress for college applicants.
When your ability to afford a college education hangs in the balance, it’s important that you’re able to communicate effectively with the administrators who manage financial aid at your college. Getting in touch with the right person and understanding how the process works can make all the difference when you’re trying to make college affordable for your family.
In this post, we’ll go over the role your financial aid officers will play in your life during admissions season, what you can expect from your financial aid officers, and what you need to know to make your relationship with them as effective as possible.
What’s a Financial Aid Officer?
A college’s financial aid office may be made up of a variety of different staff members, from part-time administrative assistants to high-ranking directors and deans. The size and makeup of an individual college’s financial aid office will depend upon factors like the size of the student body, the percentage of students receiving aid, and the available financial aid budget. However, the title of “financial aid officer” is one that you’ll find at almost every college.
Financial aid officers are the staff members who are most directly responsible for connecting individual students to aid opportunities, helping them manage their aid, and addressing any problems that might arise. Typically, they’re the people who review financial aid applications and make initial decisions or recommendations about your aid award, though these decisions will often need to be approved by a higher-level administrator or committee before they’re final.
How much power your financial aid officers will have to individually determine your award depends on your school. However, their job is to work and advocate on your behalf to ease the financial burden of your college education. Once your applications are submitted and processed, they’re responsible for pulling it all together and getting an award package into your hands.
If you contact a college’s financial aid office with general questions, or if you just want to check that your application has been received, an administrative assistant or other staffer may be able to help you. If you have specific or detailed questions about your own application or award, your assigned financial aid officer is the person who’s best equipped to give you specific answers.
During the Application Process
When you’re a college applicant, your interactions with a college’s financial aid office will be centered on submitting your financial aid application. Before admissions decisions are released, your job is to make sure that the financial aid office has all the information it needs to determine your aid eligibility.
You can read more about the specific facts and documents you’ll need to provide in our post, FAFSA, CSS Profile, IDOC, Oh My: A Guide to Financial Aid. Each school has its own requirements, but usually, you’ll need to submit the details of your family’s income and assets, as well as copies of their tax returns. In order to receive your award letter promptly, you’ll have to meet the financial aid application deadlines set by the school.
Some students wonder why colleges ask for so much information. In order to accurately assess your financial need and distribute need-based aid fairly, the college must get a full picture of each student’s financial circumstances. Without documentation that demonstrates your need, the college can’t and won’t award you need-based financial aid.
Financial aid awards are typically not determined until after admissions decisions are made, especially at schools with need-blind admissions policies. The college needs to have all the necessary information at hand so that if you’re accepted, your award can be calculated and made available before you have to make a final decision about where to attend.
At this stage in the process, you may or may not have a specific person acting as your assigned financial aid officer — schools differ in their practices. Even if you don’t have a designated financial aid officer yet, however, staff members at each college’s financial aid office should be able to answer your general questions or confirm receipt of your important documents.
The reason why some colleges don’t assign financial aid officers to students at this stage is that until admissions decisions are made, it’s likely that no one has even looked at your financial aid application yet. Especially for schools with a large number of applicants, it doesn’t make sense to put work into evaluating financial aid applications for the many students who will end up not being accepted.
Financial aid offices know that students are anxious to hear back about how much financial aid they’ll receive, but it’s often not possible for them to give estimates or make commitments until the full evaluation process has taken place. Once that happens, however, you’ll have more help and support from your financial aid officers as you figure out what your award means and whether it makes that college a viable option for you.
After You’re Accepted
Once you have acceptances in hand, your relationship to your financial aid officers at the schools to which you’ve been accepted changes. You’ll usually be assigned to a particular officer, so you’ll have an established contact at the office who’s familiar with your situation and can offer personalized advice and assistance as you try to make a final decision.
Colleges usually aim to send out financial aid award letters at the same time as or slightly after admissions decisions are released. However, the timing can vary, especially if the office didn’t receive your full aid application on time. If your aid application was late or incomplete, you may have to wait a while after you receive your admissions decision to learn about your financial aid.
If your award letters are delayed, your financial aid officer will work closely with you to obtain the necessary information, track your application’s progress, and resolve whatever issues come up. Financial aid officers know that affordability is a major concern when you’re deciding where to attend, so they’ll do everything possible to ensure that you hear back about your aid before the response deadlines you need to meet.
Once you receive your award letter, whatever the timing, you may find that you have questions or concerns about your award. Your financial aid officer can help you decipher the cost of attendance breakdown and aid offer it contains, and also provide insight into how your award was determined.
If you feel that a mistake was made or important information wasn’t taken into account when your financial aid award was calculated, you may decide to appeal your award. (Check out our post Can I Appeal My Financial Aid Award? for more about how this reconsideration process works.) Again, speaking to your financial aid officer will be the first step in filing your appeal, and your officer will be your main contact throughout the appeal process.
You should be aware that your financial aid officers are dealing with large numbers of other prospective students (and possibly also current students) besides you. They’re not always going to be available to respond or help immediately, and especially around the time of major deadlines, they’re likely to be swamped. However, they understand the urgency of the situation, and they do their best to ensure that all the students they’re assigned get the help they need.
Other staff members may be able to provide some assistance, but certain matters must be discussed with your assigned financial aid officer. If you can’t reach your officer immediately and have to wait for a response, be patient — they’re probably busily working on your behalf or waiting for a response from someone else, and will update you once they have more information to convey.
At some schools, the financial aid committee only meets every week or two to discuss and finalize awards, so your financial aid officer may simply be waiting for your turn on the docket. Even if it takes some time, your assigned officer is still most likely the best — and possibly the only — person to help you solve your problem.
Once you receive your award letter and make a decision about where to attend, you’ll further strengthen your relationship with your financial aid officer. That officer will be the person to answer any additional questions you might have, guide you through any remaining paperwork (such as loan applications and work-study forms), and help you understand what you can expect financially when you arrive at college.
As with any other staff members at the colleges you’re considering, in order to keep your relationship with your financial aid officers positive and effective, make sure you treat them with politeness and respect. They’re working within school policies and other constraints to try to help students get the funding they need, and that job is often difficult, especially when applicant pools are large and deadlines inch ever closer.
From my personal experience working in a financial aid office, however, I can say that every financial aid officer I’ve worked with has been genuinely dedicated to helping make excellent educational experiences possible for a broader range of students, regardless of their financial backgrounds. If you take the time to build a good relationship with your financial aid officer, there’s a lot that officer can do to make your transition to college smoother and easier.
For More Information
Financial aid can be complex to consider and apply for, but it can also change your life by expanding your college options.
If you’re in the process of planning for college, you already know that your college applications will require a great deal of time, energy, and work from you. It’s worth it, however — the potential rewards of getting accepted to a college that’s a great fit for you are substantial.
CollegeVine’s experienced and trained application consultants are here to help you put your best foot forward in the application process. They can assist you in putting together a great application, crafting brilliant essays, and navigating the often confusing world of college admissions.
Visit these posts on the CollegeVine blog for the information you need to get started with your financial aid search:
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