An important deadline is fast approaching for students who apply for college financial assistance using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. From Jan. 31 through the middle of February, most colleges will hand out their FAFSA award packages for the 2005-2006 academic year, says Ben Kaplan, 26, founder of ScholarshipCoach.com. "Those who submit these forms later find that the financial resources have dried up," says Kaplan. The sooner students get in applications, the better their chances are to receive more money.
Even if you miss out on the FAFSA bounty, you still have time to drum up scholarship money for college in the fall, adds Kaplan. He should know. As a high school senior in Portland, Ore., eight years ago, he amassed nearly $90,000 to help pay for Harvard. Kaplan shared some financial-aid tips for future and soon-to-be college students with Associate Editor Toddi Gutner. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Q: What do students need to know about FAFSA?
A: The FAFSA form looks at the prior calendar year when evaluating a family's income. It takes a brief financial snapshot for one year, which is called the base year, and all the aid will be based on that one year. So for the 2006-2007 school year, a family's income from Jan. 1, 2005 to Jan. 1, 2006 will be considered.
Q: What are some strategies families can use to help their chances of getting aid?
A: Since a family's assets are evaluated the moment the financial-aid form is submitted, any large expenses you expect to incur in the future, like buying a computer or a car, should be taken in that base year in order to reduce your assets. Another strategy is to defer income from that base year. That means delaying a yearend bonus, avoiding cashing in a savings bond, or if you have highly variable income, making sure the base year is not a high-income year.
Q: What is the biggest mistake students make when they consider the cost of a college?
A: People often look at the sticker price, then decide not to apply. Many families rule out a school because they underestimate the financial aid they'll receive. That's a mistake because they don't realize how the FAFSA financial-aid forms work. FAFSA helps calculate the expected family contribution for the overall college cost.
The more expensive the college, the more likely you'll qualify for a larger financial-aid package. Say, for example, you can contribute $10,000 and you apply to a school that costs $10,000 a year. You won't get any aid. But if you apply to a school that costs $30,000 [and] you'll contribute $10,000, you could get $20,000 in potential aid. Just because the school has a more expensive sticker price doesn't mean you'll pay more out of pocket to attend. Online calculators, such as collegeboard.org, can help you estimate what type of aid you'll get from an FAFSA application.
Q: Say you receive a financial-aid package you're not happy with. How can you get a college to revise its offer?
A: The most important thing is to never tell the college you'd like to negotiate the offer. Instead, tell the college you'd like to help it understand your true financial need. Your family may have expenses that aren't evident in the financial-aid form, such as caring for an elderly adult, paying for a private school, or incurring high medical bills. You could also have income that can't be counted on year after year.
It's also not a good idea to pit two or three schools against each other. Instead, tell the college it is your first choice, except there are certain financial-aid realities. If it offers you a better financial-aid package, you will attend the school.
Q: What about scholarships?
A: There are many resources students don't even know about. For example, you can follow the Internet bread-crumb trail. By that I mean you type the name of a scholarship you know into Google. It will turn up many other Web sites that list scholarships to investigate.
Another strategy is to check within your local community. Banks often administer and hold funds for local scholarships, and bank managers usually know of them.
Finally, the most obvious thing is to get on the radar screen of the high school guidance counselor. Typically, he or she is overwhelmed and doesn't always get the scholarship information out to all the candidates. A good relationship with a guidance counselor can always help.
Q: Do you have any suggestions on how to do the essay portion of a scholarship application?
A: The majority of students have never seen an example of a winning scholarship essay. Schools will often send copies of those essays if a student requests them. When a student sees how someone else communicated effectively, that increases the chance of producing a winning essay.