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College financial aid: How to navigate offers in one of the most challenging seasons yet

April 29, 2024
By Jillian Berman

College financial aid: How to navigate offers in one of the most challenging seasons yet

The botched rollout of a revamped federal financial-aid form has made this year's college acceptance season particularly vexing

The spring is often a stressful and exciting time for seniors in high school and their families as they dig into the details of their college admissions offers and start to make their decisions. But the botched rollout of a revamped federal financial aid form has made this year's college acceptance season particularly vexing.

The glitches in launching the new FAFSA - the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form - meant delays for students in filling out the form and delays for colleges in receiving students' data. As a result, financial-aid offers, which typically arrive in the winter and early spring, are just now trickling in.

"We think over the next couple of weeks there will probably be what we would call a large wave of award letters," said MorraLee Keller, senior director for strategic programming at the National College Attainment Network.

These documents are crucial to helping students decide which institution they'll attend. The offers are essentially the first time students know how much they'll actually pay to attend a given college.

As offers start arriving in mailboxes and inboxes, the following are some tips from experts on how to navigate the financial aspects of this particularly challenging season.

Submit a FAFSA if you haven't already

As of late April, applicants had submitted more than 8 million FAFSAs to the Department of Education. Still, the news surrounding the FAFSA challenges have made college-access professionals concerned that students are shying away from filling out the form at all.

As of mid-April, 29.3% of members of the Class of 2024 had filled out a FAFSA, according to the National College Access Network. That's compared with 46.8% of the Class of 2023 by the same time last year.

It's not too late. Students can still fill out the FAFSA, and if they haven't yet they should. The only way to access federal financial aid like Pell grants and student loans is by submitting a FAFSA. In addition, schools, states and community organizations use the form's data to award their own scholarships.

"We just don't want people to give up on the process because it's been frustrating this year," Keller said. "Seek help. Get it done."

Track the progress of your FAFSA

For students who have already submitted a form, they should log in periodically to see whether it's been processed, said Jose Jimenez, the director of college access in San Francisco and Silicon Valley at 10,000 Degrees.

In addition, some students and families may need to make corrections to their FAFSA forms. "Some students may have clicked the wrong button or are missing their parent's signature," because their identity wasn't initially verified, Jimenez said.

For weeks students were locked out of correcting their FAFSA form if they'd made a mistake. Now, corrections are open. Students who need to make fixes should log in to their FAFSA portal and do so, Jimenez said.

Students whose forms have been processed but who haven't received offers from schools may also want to check in with schools to which they sent applications to see if they need anything else, Jimenez said.

Gather as much information as you can

Every year, experts advise college seniors and their families to wait until they receive all of their financial-aid offers before making a decision so they can truly compare options. That may be particularly challenging this spring as so many schools are experiencing delays in sending out their aid packages.

Still, students should be patient, experts say.

"We need to wait until you have financial-aid offers in hand to really figure out what is the most affordable option," said Brendan Williams, the vice president of knowledge at uAspire, a college-advising organization. "You never want to make a decision without knowing the cost."

Williams said students can take comfort in the fact that colleges know there are issues with the FAFSA and that might delay students' decisions. In addition, many schools have extended their decision deadlines in light of the FAFSA delays.

If students are still waiting to receive aid offers but have been offered admission to colleges with looming decision deadlines, they should reach out to those schools to see whether they can get an extension, Williams said.

Students should also make sure they're on top of any new deadlines for schools that have extended their windows for acceptance of admissions offers, Keller said.

Some students may be feeling pressure from schools to commit, said Teresa Steinkamp, the director of advising at the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, an organization that provides scholarships and guidance to low-income students. In some cases, they may be asking for a deposit in order to secure housing or choose a roommate, she said.

"They're being asked via text message from university-mascot automated chatbots how likely they are to attend the school," she said. "Even if it's not a formal commitment, schools are trying to gauge how likely students are going to come."

Steinkamp says students should remember that the pressure they're feeling from colleges isn't really about them. "For schools it's about making sure that they've got students coming in in their next class," she said.

Students who are also being asked to make deposits can also ask for details on those commitments. "What is the deadline to make that payment? Is the deposit refundable? And until what point is the deposit refundable?" are the kinds of questions students can ask, Steinkamp said.

In some cases students may need to make a decision without all of the offer information available to them, Steinkamp said. If that's their situation, students should consider how much risk they are willing to take before committing and to speak with a counselor or other trusted adviser to understand the offers they have in hand before making a decision.

"This is a significant financial investment that you are making in yourself and for your future and so it's important to have all of the details," she said.

Communicate any changes in financial circumstances to prospective colleges

The financial data schools receive from the FAFSA is from the prior tax year (that's the 2022 tax year for this year's applicants). That means it can sometimes be outdated.

Even before financial-aid packages arrive, students and families can contact financial-aid offices to inform them of any change in their family's financial circumstances from when the data was pulled.

"Let's say a parent was laid off or their job changed and they had a decrease in income," or had a major unexpected expense like a health emergency, Williams said. Those are things families can tell the financial-aid office about to make sure they have the most updated information when creating the aid offer.

Think through your non-financial priorities

While waiting for financial-aid offers, students and families should try to nail down how well the schools they've applied to deliver on other priorities.

Anali Vargas, the 12th-grade senior program manager at Phoenix Military Academy for iMentor Chicago, a college-access organization, said she points students toward certain factors to consider when evaluating a school.

For example, she tells students to figure out what a college's six-year graduation rate is and how successful it is at retaining students. In addition, Vargas encourages students to evaluate the schools' climate and, in particular, how that climate is felt by students like them. Vargas and iMentor work primarily with first-generation students and students of color.

"Does it seem like they have ways that they try to create a supportive and welcoming environment from students from different backgrounds?" she said. Often that can mean looking at what kinds of academic and social services the schools offer, Vargas said.

Families can also try to get tough conversations out of the way before the financial-aid offers arrive. For example, they can talk through questions like: "Is your family OK with you leaving the city? Are they OK with you leaving the state?"

If students going out of state, Vargas said this is another good question to ask: "What does it look like in terms of affording to come home for the breaks and the holidays?"

Families may want to discuss what kind of financial contribution parents expect their kids to make, Williams said. One question families may want to sort through, Williams said: If parents are taking on a loan to help a student pay for college, do they expect the student to make payments on the loan after graduation?

Once you have the offers, here's what to look for

Even when students and families actually receive their financial-aid offers, they can be difficult to decode. That's because colleges don't always use clear language in communicating with students. In addition, colleges aren't required to adopt a standard format for offer letters, which means students often have to do extra legwork in order to make direct comparisons among schools.

"One of the things we call out to students is that financial-aid letters vary per school, and they sometimes trick students a little bit," said Samantha Rodriguez, iMentor's high-school program director of schools on Chicago's south and west sides. "They don't make things as easily readable for them."

Here's what experts suggest students and families look for on their offers:

Scholarship/gift aid: "Pay attention to anything that says 'grant' or 'scholarship,' " Jimenez said. "That's free money.

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