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Think You Know About Financial Aid? Think Again

Jul 25, 2011 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Financial aid can be confusing. There are plenty of misconceptions and myths that can affect your decisions—about which school to apply for, how to react to a financial aid letter, and more. But the more you know, the better you’ll be able to assess your own financial situation. Here are a few truths about financial aid that you need to know.

You need good grades to qualify for financial aid

Not true. Most aid—especially federal aid—is based on your income level. The less money you have, the more you get. In fact, merit-based scholarships are much more rare than need-based aid, and many colleges only offer a handful that are entirely based on merit. You’re much more likely to land a merit-based scholarship from an organization such as a nonprofit, company, or religious group that isn’t affiliated with the government or your school.

It’s possible to “renegotiate” your financial aid package with the school

Going to college might seem like buying a used car—nobody pays the sticker price. But you can’t approach your financial aid office like you would a used car salesman. Most of the time, financial aid officers have very little control over the federal aid you get—they simply enter the numbers you give them into a formula given by the government to determine your aid eligibility. To change the amount of aid, you have to change the numbers you enter into the formula. You can try negotiating for some amount of aid given by the school itself, but for large federal loans and grants, the figures aren’t likely to change unless you’ve had a major change in financial status since you filled out your FAFSA.

It’s better to save up for an education than rely on financial aid

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Financial aid can be confusing. There are plenty of misconceptions and myths that can affect your decisions

It might seem better to save a lot for your college education—and get into less debt later. But the more savings you have, the less aid you’ll be eligible for—and some of that aid could be grants and scholarships. Financially, it may be better for you to work part-time while you’re in college to start paying back your loans before you graduate rather than put off college for a few years to save up.

If your parents refuse to pay for college, you’ll get more financial aid

The unfortunate thing is that there really are some family situations where the parents refuse to pay for aid—but the student is stuck qualifying for aid based on the parents’ income. No matter what your family situation, you can’t be considered independent from your parents for financial aid purposes unless you meet some very specific requirements—you’re a veteran, married, over 24, have children of your own, or are a ward of the state, for example.

If you get married, you’ll get better financial aid

There’s a specific law that disallows updating your marriage information within the year after you’ve completed your financial aid application—so even if you got married after you submitted the FAFSA, you can’t change your marital status for financial aid purposes until the next year. And even if you could, whether or not that improves your financial aid depends on your particular situation. You won’t have to count your parents’ incomes, but you will have to count your spouse’s—which may or may not help your financial aid.

Only rich kids go to private schools

Not true. In fact, many high-tuition schools go out of their way to be sure low-income students get more financial aid—often more so than a public school would. If your heart is set on a school with a high sticker price, apply anyway—and evaluate whether or not you can afford it after you get the financial aid letter, not before.

Don’t believe the myths about financial aid. You can try to renegotiate your financial aid letter—but you may not get very far. Getting married or emancipating yourself from your parents will not necessarily improve your financial aid situation.  And sometimes the most fiscally sound decision is counter-intuitive—working during school, for example, instead of saving before you go to college. But the more you know about the realities of financial aid, the better you’ll be able to navigate the maze.



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