Financial aid can sometimes feel like a spiderweb that only gets stickier the more you try to maneuver through it. There are plenty of things to think about — ways for your family to represent assets to score more help, what saving for college means for the aid you'll receive and how to negotiate for a better aid package. But so much time can go into snagging the most financial assistance that by the time any decisions arrive in your mailbox, one question might never have occurred to you: Should you turn down any part of an aid package?
Now, in general, I don't suggest turning down any aid for one main reason: You could be endangering future aid by signaling to the Financial Aid Officers (FAOs) that you can find the money elsewhere. And that doesn't bode well if things were to change in your financial situation when you have to apply again the next year. (Yes, you have to apply for financial aid each year you attend college — the FAFSA isn't a one-stop shop!) However, there are exceptions to every rule. So while I'd rarely suggest that you turn down financial aid when it's offered to you, here are a few cases in which you might consider doing so, as well as some details to help you weigh both sides.
Study First, Work … Second?
The main concern students (and their families!) have is that they'll need to devote as much time as possible to coursework once they're strolling the campus grounds. And while that's a mindset I can totally get behind, let's consider the flip side since financial aid packages will often include assistance from work-study.
You might be worried that those positions will detract from time you could spend studying, but it's also commonly found that working a reasonable number of hours — no more than ten a week on average — forces students to budget their time a little more wisely. So if you're offered work-study, you might be better off trying it for a semester first to see how it goes before declining that option from the start. If at that point the work-school balance is not, well, working, and you're forced to seek out other funds, you can revisit other portions of your financial aid package.
(Don't?) Borrow What You Don't Need
In some cases, you'll be offered more in loans than what you need to cover the cost of a semester. You might be hesitant to accept loans that add up to a surplus of funds, and that makes sense — who wants to pay interest on extraneous funds? No one! So if you're sure you can get by without accepting the full amount, just take what you need!
On the other hand, keep in mind that there is no interest on subsidized loans while you're in college, so if there's a chance you might end up needing that extra help in a future semester (if, say, a work-study position doesn't work out), it's not a bad idea to put some of it away now while you've got the chance — remember that it might not be offered again if you don't take it the first time, so make sure you're considering future semesters as well as this one.
Normally, receiving a scholarship award is great news all around — who doesn't love award money you don't need to pay back? But sometimes, a scholarship that might have seemed great when you applied can later show a set of obligations that are too daunting or complicated to be worth the amount of the award.
For instance, some graduate programs may require you to work within a certain field or area for a predetermined amount of time, and if you fail to do so, you may find yourself owing the cost of that scholarship. It is not uncommon for students to switch majors or extracurricular interests, so if your aid is contingent on studying a subject or playing a sport that no longer interests you, that may be a reason to turn down this aid.
Looking for other answers to your burning financial aid questions? Check out our books Paying for Collegeand 8 Steps to Paying Less for College for help along the way. And to help with any other part of the college application process, our book College Admission 101has you covered.