Preparing Financially for College Without Breaking the Bank

Going to college can be a shock for anyone, especially with the inflating prices and the rising costs just to attend.

Rachel Coleman, Independent Education Consultant at College Essay Editor, has worked in the college counseling field for over seven years, helping high school students navigate the college and financial aid application process across all disciplines.

As Coleman notes, she is well versed in finding ways for her students to save money on their college tuitions, especially the financial aid process and landscape. She also helps students with their FAFSA, CSS Profile, and IDOC paperwork and their applications for merit-based scholarships (private and school-based).

Before Apply to Colleges

“Before applying to colleges, families should know their Student Aid Index (SAI) number,” Coleman says. “This was formerly called Expected Family Contribution (EFC), but the Department of Education just changed the FAFSA rules this year as part of the second COVID relief bill, and this name was one of the things that changed.”

Families can go to the Financial Aid website to help them calculate this number.

This number would then give families an idea of the minimum the government expects them to contribute per year for their child’s college education.

“I suggest that parents run the federal methodology (used by most private colleges),” Coleman said. “Now, for plenty of families, this SAI/EFC number is not a number they’re comfortable paying.”

If this is the case, families will have to start planning how to save money to meet this SAI number – having a target number is vital during the saving process, or they can make plans to find scholarships that will help their students.

“However, if the SAI number is a good number for families, i.e., a reasonable number that parents are comfortable paying each year, then students should apply exclusively to college that meet 100% of demonstrated financial need,” Coleman said.

Many schools meet total needs. However, this will mean that parents will only pay the SAI number, no matter where the student is accepted.

Coleman suggests that people avoid generating additional income during a family’s base tax year for FAFSA and get familiar with when this year will be.

“This is not intuitive – it’s colloquially called the prior, prior year in the education world,” Coleman said. “That means that the income that parents make during their child’s sophomore spring into junior year winter will be the federal government’s income to determine a family’s financial need.”

It is not recommended to add more than average to a family’s income during this base year. Typically, parents wouldn’t want to do something that generates unusual income, like selling an investment property or anything with significant capital gains.

This base year is the best year to get advice from an accountant or financial advisor, so if they suggest making changes or moving assets, parents need to do so before the end of the base tax year for it to change the family’s SAI/EFC.

What You Should Do After Applying to College

Coleman recommends that college-bound students not accept an offer of admission to a school without first asking for additional merit scholarship money.

“The answer may be no, and that’s fine, but you lose your leverage if you accept the offer of admission without first asking for more money,” Coleman said.

“Calling the admissions office and saying something along the lines of, ‘If I receive $10,000 more in merit aid, my parents say I can send in my enrollment deposit today,’ will make the admissions officer consider the student’s request seriously, and decide what’s in their school’s budget to a yes – which is their ultimate goal.”

Coleman said her students used the excellent tool to get context for typical merit aid/need-based aid packages at a school, which posts each university’s average aid award. These conversations about merit aid happen through the Office of Admissions, not the Financial Aid Office.

If you have not received merit-based aid and are interested in asking for more need-based aid, it’s essential to read about each school’s stated criteria for amending their financial aid awards. These criteria are published on the Financial Aid Office’s website and typically include circumstances that would change a family’s financial status like unexpected medical expenses, a parent losing a job, adding a new dependent to the family, etc.

Expert Recommends Using Recent Tax Returns

Once you have reviewed the school’s criteria, you need to submit a Financial Aid Appeal Request and documentation. An example of this can be found at Occidental.

A helpful piece of supporting evidence, Coleman says, can be recent tax returns. An example would be that FAFSA considers the prior year’s tax returns when determining a student’s need before January 1st.

If, after January 1st, you can use the most recent tax return to demonstrate a changed financial status, the school will accept the appeal and amend the FAFSA, thus increasing the student’s need and making the student eligible for more aid.

“It is essential to do this step as soon as possible, ideally, before the end of January from which you’re using the new tax return as evidence,” Coleman said. “Speed is important because each school has a limited amount of funds, and you want to get to the front of the line to receive them as soon as you can.”

For over seven years, Rachel Coleman has been in the college counseling field, helping high school students navigate the college and financial aid application process. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Comparative Literature from Stanford University, where she was the head tutor of Stanford’s Hume Center for Writing and Speaking. She then received her College Counseling Certificate from UCLA and is now an active member of HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association).

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