Traversing the world of college financial aid can feel like you are navigating a maze.
And if you go into the process blindly, that is exactly what it will be: a confusing tangle of dead ends, backtracking, and worst of all... traps.
Let's look at six of the worst traps and how you can avoid them.
If you are confused by your financial aid letter, don’t feel bad! A very common mistake in the financial aid process is misunderstanding where the money for your package is coming from.
Colleges use various sources to fund financial aid packages, and not all of them save you money.
Unfortunately, the financial aid letter is rarely clear about what type of aid you will be given (loan or grant) or how much you will owe in the long run.
The only way to effectively understand exactly where your aid is coming from, and how much money you will owe, is by asking the right questions.
Look at each item listed in your package and ask the college’s financial aid office whether it is a loan or a grant.
For loans, find out the interest rates, details about the maturation of the loan, and piece together what it will cost you in the long-term.
For grants, find out how and when the money will be dispersed. Some schools will provide the entire grant at the beginning, while others will spread it out over four years.
Be sure you understand every detail of your financial aid package, no matter how confusing it may seem.
Many families are quickly scared away from applying to private schools when they see a yearly price tag in the range of $40,000 – $60,000.
However, the sticker price is far less important than the net price.
This is the total amount you will pay out of pocket to attend a college after aid and other variables like travel or room and board are factored in.
The more expensive schools often offer far more financial aid, meaning your cost to attend could drop drastically compared to the price of a state school.
Calculate your net cost to attend a university before you cross it off your list for being too overpriced.
If at all possible, you should avoid pulling money from your retirement accounts to help fund your child’s college education.
When you withdraw from your IRA, money that was previously not counted as assets in financial aid calculations can suddenly negatively affect the amount of aid you receive because it is now counted as income.
Then you face sharp penalties and fees for drawing from your retirement too early as well as owing taxes on previously untaxed funds.
The damage you do to yourself by tapping into retirement is far worse than taking out federal loans to pay for college.
When it comes to filing for financial aid, DO NOT WAIT!
Start early and fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible.
There are many different deadlines for federal, state, and college financial aid programs, and some of them are quite early.
The longer you wait to fill out these forms, the more you risk missing out on the maximum financial aid package for which you are eligible.
Not all colleges fulfill 100% of financial need.
Don’t assume that your FAFSA EFC (Expected Family Contribution) is all a college will expect you to pay.
Ask each college whether they fulfill 100% of financial need, and if not, what percentage of need do they cover.
A cheaper school that only covers 70% of your need could be more expensive than a higher priced school that covers 100%.
6. Fixed Financial Aid Packages
Many people assume if their financial need increases in the future, then their aid package will be accordingly adjusted.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Some schools will not adjust your package for any reason after your first year of college.
This is something you need to find out ahead of time, especially if you expect your need to increase in the future.
You don’t want to discover in your child’s third year of college that you can no longer afford to pay for it!