Yes, the clock is ticking down. But wherever you are in the process, there are still ways to successfully play the financial aid game.
In fact, with a few properly-executed “moves,” you can definitely have an impact on what financial aid is offered and how close it comes to meeting your needs.
Here are ten key moves to put your team in play:
1. Complete the FAFSA. Even if you missed state and/or institutional priority deadlines, you should still complete a FAFSA as soon as possible. It’s no secret that most schools have already allocated funds. But if there is anything left, they may try to accommodate late filers. And even if a school has distributed all its own aid, you may still be eligible for federal loans and Pell grants. Do it NOW.
2. Submit Corrections. If you completed your FAFSA based on estimates, you should update immediately using tax information from 2013. Although colleges will distribute financial aid packages based on estimates, they expect corrections to be made as soon as final information is available. Be aware that your financial aid package could be amended if revised numbers vary significantly from the estimates you provided—but this can work to your advantage if your income estimates were high.
3. Answer mail. Watch for correspondence related to your FAFSA or other school-based financial aid applications. Keep in mind that colleges are required by the federal government to randomly select “targeted” applications for "verification” using a “risk model” to identify sections of the FAFSA that are prone to error or which seem inconsistent. If you are asked to provide additional information or to clarify any of your answers on application forms, respond immediately. Those who have not submitted federal verification requirements by October 1, 2014 may have all federal, state, and need-based institutional financial aid cancelled.
4. Review the fine print. In the rush of decision-making, you may have missed some important terms in your financial aid package. Be aware of any academic requirements to maintain your scholarship award and be sure that your aid is guaranteed for a minimum of four years. If you expect to study abroad, ask if your financial aid will carry with you. Plan ahead. Don’t wait until the money disappears before addressing these issues with your financial aid office.
5. Keep colleges informed. Be sure to make colleges aware of any significant change in family circumstances, such as an unexpected layoff, a salary cut, a divorce, or the death of a parent or guardian. Most are very understanding and will make every effort to respond promptly and with great compassion. It’s better to be upfront about situations over which you have no control than to let a problem fester until neither you nor the college can solve it.
6. Educate yourself about loans. All new federal education loans are being made through the Direct Loan program and your college’s financial aid office with funds provided by the US Department of Education. Although federal loans may offer lower interest rates and more flexible repayment plans (including some loan forgiveness opportunities), it’s up to you to be a smart consumer. Check out the information provided on the FinAid website and contact your financial aid office with any additional questions you may have.
7. Go back to the well. It can’t hurt to ask. As other students make adjustments in their plans for the fall, previously allocated money may get freed up. If you’re having a hard time making ends meet or if the mix of grant aid and loans is proving burdensome—even without an extraordinary change in circumstances—contact your financial aid office and explain the situation.
8. Continue the hunt. Admittedly scholarship competitions are getting a little scarce, especially those that might help with fall expenses. Nevertheless, continue checking with websites like Cappex or FastWeb, and register to receive up-to-date information on competitions or other opportunities. Also, don’t hesitate to ask about the availability of future scholarship money at your college or university. If you hit the ball out of the park freshman year in the way of academics or community service, there may be scholarships targeted to sophomores.
9. Be creative. As you consider various summer employment opportunities or ways to earn a little college cash before starting school, be sure to ask about scholarships, tuition reimbursement, or any other programs that might provide college assistance beyond your paycheck.
10. Keep your grades up. Colleges reserve the right to rescind merit scholarships if grades drop below the point of eligibility. On the other hand, strong senior year grades may push your overall GPA to a level high enough to qualify for additional money. Even a tenth of a percentage point could make a difference in dollars received. Again, it never hurts to ask.
If you have questions concerning FAFSA on the Web, do not hesitate to contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 1-319-337-5665. You can also contact the Center by email or request "live help" by clicking a button located on the FAFSA website.
Most importantly, remember that even at this late date, it’s worth playing the game to win!