14 Important Financial Aid Questions You Must Ask

Financial aid makes college affordable for most families in America. It’s almost impossible for most families in America to cover the cost of tuition using only their personal savings. Fortunately, financial aid is available that helps them bridge the gap between tuition and personal funds. If this is your first experience with college funding, it’s advisable to make a list of financial aid questions to ask a financial advisor. 

Ask these three questions before consolidating your loansFinancial aid comes in various forms, from free grants and scholarships to loans that must be paid back. Each college differs in the type of financial aid it offers. The eligibility requirements, application format, and other terms and conditions also differ among colleges. This could impact your total cost of tuition. It also determines whether or not that particular school is affordable for you. To avoid getting into this situation, it helps to ask the college financial advisor specific financial aid questions. 

We’ve put together a few basic questions to ask a financial advisor before paying for college. Getting the answers to these questions will help you make a more informed decision about which college is affordable for you.  

1. What sort of financial aid packages does your school offer? 

Every school puts together different financial aid packages. These are usually a combination of scholarships, grants, and student loans. Scholarships are awarded on merit and don’t need to be returned. Grants are awarded based on need and also don’t have to be returned. Student loans have to be returned with interest after you graduate. The more free financial aid you receive from a school, the less you’ll need to borrow by way of loans.  

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2. Are your financial aid packages front-loaded? 

This is one of the most important questions to ask a college financial advisor. Every college differs in the way they distribute its financial aid packages. Front-loading is the practice of offering attractive financial aid packages for the first year only. The scholarships and grants are only available for first-year students. They are not renewable during the subsequent years. 

Not all colleges front-load their financial aid but many do and it can make a huge difference to your total cost of tuition. With a college that offers a consistent financial aid package, you know exactly what to expect for four years. This will help you budget better. On the other hand, your budget will be completely disrupted if your financial aid changes every year. Getting the answer to this question will help you assess if the school is affordable for all 4 years and not just the first year. 

3. What is your school’s deadline to apply for financial aid?

One of the lesser-known facts is that colleges have a different financial aid application deadline from the FAFSA deadline. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) deadline is June 30 of the year you will be attending school. However, many colleges set an earlier deadline for receiving financial aid applications. That means although you can file the FAFSA anytime before June 30, you may miss out on financial aid from some schools. 

Once you’ve made your shortlist of colleges you’re interested in, call their financial aid office and ask about their submission deadline. Don’t forget to make a note of it. You do not want to miss out on receiving financial aid.

4. Do I need to fill out the CSS profile for your school? 

Many colleges also require prospective students to fill out the CSS Profile to be considered for college aid. This profile asks several questions about your family’s finances. If a college requires you to fill out the CSS Profile, remember, it will be in addition to the FAFSA. Some colleges may only ask for the FAFSA. Others may ask for both, the FAFSA and CSS Profile. In either case, the FAFSA is a mandatory requirement to qualify for federal financial aid.  

5. Could you help me understand the details of my financial aid award letter? 

Once a school accepts you, they will send you a financial aid award letter along with your acceptance letter. Every student receives a different aid package based on their financial circumstances. 

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Your financial aid award letter will include a detailed breakdown of the personalized financial aid package the school has put together for you. It will include details of the types of aid awarded and the amount you’ll receive from each type. The award letter will also include details of when and how the funds will be disbursed along with any special requirements for securing the funds. 

Although the financial aid award letter is very detailed, it can be highly technical. This is intentional to avoid any misunderstanding. However, this also makes it rather difficult to understand. If you’re not sure about something that sounds ambiguous, call the school’s financial aid office and ask them to clarify. Don’t make the mistake of presuming anything. If you’re wrong, that would be an expensive mistake.   

6. When and how will the funds be disbursed? 

These details should be included in your financial aid award letter. But if you don’t see it or something is unclear, don’t hesitate to ask. It’s important to know when and how the funds will be disbursed. This is because you may have to pay some costs such as dorm fees and meal plan upfront and will need to make the necessary arrangements.  

Usually, all funds except work-study are credited directly to the school account before the semester starts. The payments are made twice a year before each semester. From there is it credited to the student’s tuition and fee bill. Any funds left over after paying the tuition and fees are transferred to the student’s account within about fourteen days. 

The only financial aid that you don’t receive at the start of the semester is the work-study component. You’ll receive these funds as weekly paychecks only after you start working. 

7. What is the actual cost to attend your college?

The financial aid award letter that a college sends you will mention the cost of attendance for that academic year. The cost of attendance (COA) factors in the total cost of tuition, fees, room, and board. It also factors in the estimated cost of textbooks, school supplies, transportation, and miscellaneous expenses. This can add up to a scary total. However, this is the total cost without factoring in any financial aid. What you will actually pay for the academic year will be considerably less than the COA. The exact amount will depend on your financial aid package.  

If you’re not sure how to break down the COA and determine how much you’ll pay, ask. The school’s financial aid office will help you understand your financial aid package. They will explain how much you can expect in free aid in the form of grants, merit-based scholarships, and work-study. The total COA minus free financial aid will tell you the amount you actually need to pay. 

8. Will my financial aid package get affected if I applied early action or early decision? 

Every school has its own conditions related to this. Applying early action or early decision may affect your financial aid package in some schools. In other schools, it may not make any difference. Because the answer varies from one school to another, this is one of the financial aid questions you must ask the college advisor. 

9. When is the first tuition payment due?

This is not strictly a financial aid question but it is related and is one of the questions to ask a college advisor. The funds from your financial aid package will be sent directly to the school much before the payment deadline. However, those funds don’t cover the total COA. You do have to use your personal funds to cover the balance. For that, you need to know the tuition payment deadlines. 

With so many formalities and things to do before college starts, most people forget all about this payment deadline. They know that the financial aid will cover part of it but they completely forget about making arrangements to pay the balance This could have serious repercussions. Many families end up taking expensive last-minute loans to cover the tuition fee. 

To avoid getting into this situation, call the college financial office, ask about the deadline for the tuition payment, and set a reminder so you don’t forget.  

10. Are there any other scholarships that I can apply for? 

The school will offer you a few scholarships as part of your financial aid package. But you may be eligible for a few more. Ask the financial aid office. They usually have a list of resources that are relevant for college students. They can give you information on additional scholarships and grants that you may be eligible for. These could be based on your major, financial circumstances, or your GPA. 

11. Will winning private scholarships affect my financial aid award? 

Like everything else, colleges vary in the way they deal with private scholarship winners. Some colleges may deduct your scholarship award amount from your financial aid package. But even then, each college calculates it differently. The school’s financial aid office will be able to explain exactly how your financial aid package may be affected by any private scholarships you’ve won.  

12. Has more financial aid become available since my award letter was sent to me? 

Every school sets aside a certain amount of funds to be given to students as financial aid during that academic year. They have their own method of calculating how much of those funds each student qualifies for. 100% of the funds are used up for that year. Sometimes, however, an accepted student may decide to attend another school or start college the next semester. Under those circumstances, funds get freed up and become available to any student who needs them. The school will not give this out automatically. They keep it for any student who may need additional funds during the semester. 

It’s a good idea to call your school’s financial aid office regularly and ask if funds have become available. You may need to submit additional documentation to demonstrate financial need. If it’s a merit scholarship, you will need to submit an accomplishment certificate. 

13. Do your school offer any tuition payment plans?

Some, but not all, colleges allow students to pay for tuition via payment plans. With a payment plan, you pay the difference between the full COA and financial aid awards in increments. That means you don’t have to pay the entire difference at one time. Staggering the payments over a few months can offer some relief when finances are tight. 

The terms and conditions of tuition payment plans can vary from one school to another. Make sure to ask about the structure of the school’s payment plan. Find out how the payments are broken up and when they become due. Most important of all, ask if they charge a flat fee or interest on subsequent payments. The additional charges may or may not make it worth using a tuition payment plan. 

14. What kind of work-study opportunities does your college offer? 

Work-study is one component of your federal financial aid. It allows you to work a certain number of hours and you can use the income to pay off your student loans. Most schools impose a maximum number of hours that students can work per week. This is so students don’t compromise on their academics. 

Some schools offer diverse work-study opportunities, others may have limited options. If you’re depending on work-study to pay for college, it helps to know what kind of work-study opportunities are available. You also want to find out what types of jobs are available and the number of hours you’re allowed to work. 

Knowing what questions to ask a financial aid advisor is key to maximizing your financial aid options. The financial aid questions listed above will help you get more clarity on how much you can expect to receive. This will help you budget for the balance.  

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