Financial Aid Planning 101 for School Counselors
By Debra Myton
Obtaining financial aid opens the doors of college opportunity to many students who otherwise may not have the chance to attend college. However, the financial aid process can be very complicated, therefore daunting to most families. School Counselors can help demystify the process by following a simplified, family friendly financial aid process.
Financial Aid Options
The most common types of financial aid options include: 1) grants that are based on needs with no repayment expectation, 2) scholarships based on merit with no repayment necessary; 3) loans with modified terms, conditions, and with applicable interest rate with repayment expectation; and 4) federal work study jobs, typically in a department on campus that pays the students for work performed.
Critical Information for School Counselors
The first step in applying for financial aid is to demystify the process by explaining the terms associated with the process to students and their parents. The important financial aid terms include
1) Cost of Attendance (COA)- includes direct cost, which is payment to the school or cost due up front, and indirect costs which is everything else (such as tuition and fees, books, transportation, etc.).
2) Expected Family Contribution (EFC) - the income that the student and parent contribute toward their financial need. Colleges and/or universities determine the family’s financial need by subtracting the COA from the EFC.
3) Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) - determines a student’s EFC based on the family’s personal and financial information. Any family that plans on sending their child to a college and/or university will apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
The second step in applying for financial aid is knowing when and how to start the process of the FAFSA according to the College Board Counseling Sourcebook and the Financial Aid Guide Book for high school students. The list below outlines helpful tips to help maneuver through the FAFSA dateline process successfully.
- A federal pin (personal identification number) is obtained prior to January 1. This assigned number is to be used by students and their parents until the student completes college.
- Students and parents tax forms should be completed prior to filling out the FAFSA. Otherwise, last year's tax numbers can be used until this year's forms are available for updating the FAFSA.
- The FAFSA needs to be completed in January of the year when the student is a senior in high school or the year the student decides to go to college. Completing this application means students have applied for funds awarded by most federal and state agencies. Students can complete the FAFSA application in three ways: (1) Online (2) PDF FAFSA download file at www.fafsa.ed.gov and (3) Paper FAFSA (request for copy by calling 1-800-433 -3243).
- After the FAFSA is processed, the Student Aid Report (SAR) that comes from the U. S. Department of Education will be provided to confirm the data are received (two to three weeks after submitting the FAFSA). If the FAFSA is filed electronically the process can take seven days.
- The results are sent to the colleges and/or universities the student selected on the FAFSA. The student’s college and/or university of choice will then send the student an award letter regarding the monetary aid that the student is eligible for at that institution.
- After the monetary eligibility of the student is determined, the college and/or university financial aid office will determine if the student will need additional loans. If an additional loan is indicated, the student will need to contact the financial aid administrator regarding the procedure to apply for the loan. To apply for a student loan, usually student will have to carefully follow the school’s instructions to complete the Entrance Interview and required Master Promissory Note (MPN) for a student loan.
A Few Considerations Related to the Award Letter
The option of financial aid awarded will be outlined in students’ award letter with the amount and name of the awarding agency. If students have applied to more than one college/university and the financial aid award package is substantially different for each one, then it is worthwhile for the student to contact the financial aid office for an explanation regarding that package. Students should be encouraged to prudently review the letter and weigh their options carefully to determine if they are able to afford the total momentary amount since there is a repayment requirement attached to the loan. School counselors can help students carefully weigh their options.
Other Web-based Resources
The internet contains a number of resources to augment existing financial aid planning information. The following are a few of the website links to financial aid resources.
In closing, school counselors should encourage students and parents to start the process early so they can weigh their options and meet the deadlines or other obligations that the college/university may have in the financial aid process. The financial aid process can be overwhelming for some school counselors but if counselors have a simplified process to follow to help students and parents prepare, plan, and apply for the monetary aid, it can open doors to several students who would not otherwise have this access and opportunity.
The College Board. (2006). College counseling sourcebook. (3rd ed.) New York, NY: Author.
Arkansas Department of Higher Education. (2014). How to pay for college: A guide for Arkansas students 2013-14. Little Rock, Arkansas: Author.
Debra Myton is a National Board Certified Teacher, Global Career Development Facilitator Instructor, and a School Counselor in the Little Rock School District in Little Rock, Arkansas. Counselor Myton works closely with students and parents regarding college and career awareness. She is highly motivated, lively, and positive in helping students make career choices regarding their future. She was a guest speaker at UALR – University of Arkansas at Little Rock for a high school program. You can reach Debra at firstname.lastname@example.org or 501-447-2905.