Whether you're applying to college for the first time or you're about to be an upperclassman, chances are you'll be filing out a FAFSA this fall. But for many families, the numbers on prior tax returns don't reflect their current incomes due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To ensure that you are able to maximize your financial aid package despite recent changes to your family income, consider the following tips from Joseph Novinson, a financial aid consultant with Vested Academics.
1. Fill out FAFSA Normally, Plan Your Appeal for Later
Your first step is to ensure that your FAFSA is completed accurately, so follow the instructions to the letter. "Generally speaking, the FAFSA relies on your tax returns from the prior-prior year," Novinson says. "So when the new application for financial aid opens in October, use your 2019 tax returns – there's no getting around that in this initial step," he advises.
Once you've been accepted to a college and you receive that school's financial aid package, then it's time to appeal the aid award, Novinson says. "At that point, you'll reach out to the financial aid administrator and request an appeal, explaining the special circumstances. The financial aid office will run your information through a verification process, also referred to as 'professional judgement,'" he says.
Even though you may know now that you'll need more than the aid package offers, it's still important to file your FAFSA normally up front, he says. "The college won't adjust your financial aid until your initial FAFSA shows your eligibility for financial aid," he notes.
2. Have All Documentation Ready for Appeal
Before you contact the financial aid office to appeal, make sure you have thorough documentation of the circumstances showing why your current package is inadequate, Novinson says.
"If you've had a situation such as a loss of income or reduction in hours at work that impacted your income, be sure to have all your ducks in a row for the appeal," he says. "The college will likely ask for pay stubs, W-2 forms, your tax returns, and other information as well. If someone was laid off, have letter of termination available to show the financial aid representatives."
The college will then determine whether to change your financial aid package and increase your award, he notes.
3. Leverage Merit Aid to Request Additional Dollars
Once you have your financial aid offers, they may include institutional scholarships and merit aid. If so, you can use other schools' merit aid offers in your request for more money from your target schools, Novinson says. "Every year, admission officers are fighting for students and it can be very competitive. If a student applied to multiple colleges and received multiple aid offers, figure out the best deal in terms of what your out-of-pocket costs will be, and then approach your school of choice and say 'I can see myself here, but there's a catch and it's a money problem. School X is going to let me get my degree for $10,000 less. How can you help me make my dream a reality?'"
Keep in mind, however, that if you appeal for more merit aid using this strategy, the request should go through the admissions office. "Most people go to financial aid first, but the financial aid office primarily deals with need-based aid. Go to the admissions team first and they can help you get the maximum merit award."
4. Look Locally for Scholarships
If you're seeking private scholarships as part of your college funding strategy, look locally for the best chances of winning one, Novinson says. "The bigger, national scholarships have a very deep application pool and are very competitive," he notes. "What you want to do is target your energy and attention toward smaller scholarships. Most people pass them up because they're typically for smaller dollar amounts, but they have very shallow application pools."
He recommends looking within your community to find smaller awards. You can string multiple opportunities together to increase your college funding, he says. "You may be surprised at how many local groups have scholarships available," he says. "Keep your ear to the ground, research on the internet and check with your local chamber of commerce to see if they have a list of local scholarship resources."
5. Know Each School’s Refund Policies
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught families anything, it's to expect the unexpected, and when it comes to higher education, you don't want to lose any tuition dollars if you decide not to attend a particular school.
"Know your schools' tuition refund policies," Novinson says. "If they have to shut down campus and return to distance learning, know whether you can get your tuition back. Most colleges will provide a refund if you withdraw before classes start, but you'd lose your initial deposit. However, usually once you complete 60 percent of the academic calendar, your money is not refundable."
In addition, he notes, be wary of tuition insurance. Some policies only cover you for a documented medical leave of absence, and the policy may not extend to covering campus closures due to pandemic costs. "Do your research on this type of policy before buying anything," he says.
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