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The Unspoken Rules of Financial Aid Applications

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Need-based financial aid is a lifesaver for many aspiring college students. This type of aid, which is awarded based on your family’s ability to contribute financially, can substantially ease the financial burden presented by college costs and make a college education possible even for families on tight budgets. It targets those who need help the most, increasing accessibility and helping to create a more level playing field for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.


However, need-based aid isn’t always a guarantee, a cure-all, or a smooth road forward. Policies differ by college, family and financial details can affect your eligibility in ways you can’t anticipate, and you may find that your eventual award doesn’t match up with your initial expectations. There are downsides, complications, and potential surprises in store for you as you navigate the aid application process.


In this post, you’ll find five cold, hard truths about need-based financial aid — things that you might not realize until you receive your award letter, or even until later in your college career. If you’re applying for need-based financial aid, these are the things you need to know in order to be an informed aid recipient, assess your aid options, and keep your expectations realistic.


Every College’s Financial Aid Is Different, So Read The Fine Print

No two colleges have the exact same cost of attendance, and no two colleges have the same financial aid offerings. Each school is working with a different financial aid budget, student body, and set of constraints. Their policies may differ greatly even if the language they use to describe their financial aid offerings is similar, and this can have a substantial impact upon your aid award.


You should always do your research and find out exactly what each school’s aid covers, how it’s awarded, and whether it truly meets your individual needs. If studying abroad is important to you, you’ll want to find a college that offers solid funding for study-abroad programs. If students generally graduate with higher-than-average student loan debt, it’s best to know this in advance.


Specific terms may be used in different ways at different schools. A “full scholarship” or “free ride” at one college might include housing, while at another college that term might only apply to tuition. A number of colleges state that they guarantee to meet 100% of your demonstrated financial need, but even in this category, the details may differ — for instance, it matters how much of your aid is in the form of loans versus grants.


Some schools are somewhat comparable to each other. The colleges of the Ivy League, for example, have all signed a Joint Statement on Admissions that includes some shared policies on financial aid. Beyond specific agreements like this one, however, you shouldn’t assume that you can compare financial aid from one college directly to financial aid from another college.


Financial Aid Pamphlets and Websites May Not Prepare You for Financial Aid Realities

The general financial aid information that colleges provide is a form of advertisement. The college wants to encourage you to apply and attend, so they’re trying to “sell” you on the financial benefits of choosing this particular school.


This doesn’t mean that the information is inaccurate, but it’s likely incomplete, and it deserves your critical consideration. General information about aid is just that — general. It may not apply to your particular situation, and even if it does, it’s likely more complex than it initially seems.


Statements about what aid students receive on average may or may not be accurate in your case. If your family’s financial situation is more complicated than average due to factors like business ownership, major medical expenses, or divorce, you’re even more likely to find that these predictions don’t apply to you personally. (You can also expect to fill out more paperwork than the average student.)


Colleges can’t guarantee or make a serious estimate of how much need-based aid you’ll receive until you actually go through the aid application process and submit all your financial details. Many offer online calculators that can estimate your probable award, but these calculators are overly simplified and their estimates non-binding. Some students are in for a surprise when their actual award letters arrive.


Don’t take it for granted that a college will award you financial aid, or come into the process expecting a certain amount of financial aid, no matter what statistics the college proudly presents in its advertising materials. Don’t make any serious decisions about where to attend until you know for sure how much it will cost.


You and Your College May Disagree About What You and Your Family Need

Need-based financial aid is awarded based on an official analysis of your family’s financial situation. Colleges have established policies and guidelines for how they calculate need, which are necessary in order to keep the process fair. However, your assessed financial need and your own perception of your financial need may be very different, and this can lead to confusion and conflict when your award letter arrives.


To have reasonably accurate expectations about how much financial aid you’ll receive, your family will need to take a hard look at their own financial situation, expenditures, and available assets. Need-based financial aid is intended to help students with their needs, not to help families who are already financially comfortable maintain their lifestyle.


One factor to keep in mind is that, as a high school student, you most likely don’t have a full understanding of your family’s financial situation and how it compares to those of others. Your upbringing, local environment, friendships, and other factors can influence how wealthy you feel, as can your parents’ level of openness about financial matters. In short, you may not be as needy as you think, especially in comparison to the broader applicant pool.


Your family and your college may also disagree about what should be done with potentially valuable assets. Your parents may feel that their summer cottage by the lake is a much-needed escape and a good investment, but your college may see it as an asset that could be sold to help pay for college. (Remember, some students don’t have assets to liquidate in the first place.)


Similarly, colleges will help you to afford the basics of college life, but financial aid isn’t there to accommodate your wants or your ideal lifestyle beyond these basics. For instance, your financial aid may include funding to buy the basic laptop you need for school, but it would be unfair to expect it to pay for a top-of-the-line, cutting-edge computer with all the newest features.


No matter who you are, you and your family will be expected to make some sacrifices in order to contribute to your college costs, and the more you have, the more you’ll be asked to contribute. Need-based financial aid is a valuable resource, but for the system to work, everyone has to pay what they truly can, even when they’d rather not cut back on non-necessities.



Your College Won’t Intervene In Family Disagreements

Between the inevitable stresses of the college application process and the question of how you’ll pay for college, family conflict can easily flare up during your senior year of high school. A classic example is that of divorced parents feuding about how to share your college expenses, or a student and parent disagreeing about where the student should attend.


The reality is that your college can’t and won’t act as a mediator in these situations. Family disputes are private matters, and the college is not a family therapist, social worker, or lawyer. The financial aid office doesn’t have the knowledge, expertise, or legal standing to intervene, and likely also lacks time and staff to devote to your family conflict.


In the case of divorced or unmarried parents, some colleges may provide suggestions for how they think the parents should split college costs; however, these are only suggestions. It’s ultimately up to your family to come up with a solution.


Occasionally, a parent refuses to contribute to college costs unless the student attends a certain school or commits to a certain major. Parents might also be reluctant to liquidate their assets or change their financial habits to pay for college, even if they’re technically able to do so.


In this situation, you may be able to take out additional student loans to make up for your parents’ share of college expenses. However, this involves a degree of risk. Federal student loans are only available in limited amounts, which may not cover the entire expected parent contribution. You may have to consider private loans, which typically have less borrower-friendly terms, and usually require a credit check and a cosigner.


Need-based aid is based upon what your family can contribute, not what they want to contribute. Colleges can’t afford to cover students whose parents simply aren’t willing to pay — if they did, few parents would be willing to pay their share.


Except in rare and exceptional cases, such as when a parent can’t be located or contacted and a waiver is approved, financial aid officers have to uphold the policies that keep the process fair overall. This means expecting parents with financial means to take on some of the responsibility for educational costs, even if that means making sacrifices.


This is why you need to discuss your family’s financial situation and willingness to contribute with your parents well before you choose and apply to colleges. If there’s a family disagreement or other complex situation in play, you’ll need to acknowledge and start dealing with it as early as possible in order to keep your expectations realistic.


A Generous Financial Aid Offer May Not Be Enough To Make A College Affordable For You

Some top-tier colleges are incredibly expensive, with the costliest schools in the U.S. nearing $70,000 per year in tuition plus room and board. While financial aid can help substantially, it’s not always sufficient to make that college a practical possibility for you, especially at the many schools that can’t afford to guarantee to meet your full need.


Imagine that you’re awarded $40,000 per year in need-based financial aid. That’s a generous award, but if your yearly cost of attendance is $60,000, that leaves you to make up a $20,000 difference each year — something that may still be impossible for your family.


Even if you do receive financial aid that covers all your basic needs, that doesn’t mean you won’t face financial difficulties in college. If you’re on a strict budget and don’t have additional financial resources, you may not be able to take advantage of opportunities that cost extra or prevent you from holding down a paying job, and an emergency or unexpected expense may be more difficult for you to manage than it would be for your classmates. It’s not impossible, but it can be hard.


While you’ll have to go through the full application process to receive an award letter, there are things you can do to scout out the aid possibilities at the colleges you’re interested in. Do your research beyond reading the financial aid pamphlet, use online calculators that roughly estimate your aid, and don’t be afraid to contact the financial aid office with questions.


Most of all, remember that until you receive an official offer of financial aid and go over it in detail, you can’t assume that a given school will definitely be affordable for you. If, like many students, your college choices depend in part upon cost, it’s extra important for you to keep your expectations realistic, explore a range of college options, and always have a backup plan.


For More Information

Financial aid can be a complicated topic in practice, but first and foremost, it’s important that you know how to apply for aid and maximize your opportunities.


Check out these posts from the CollegeVine blog for more information you’ll need to get started:



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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.