Paying for a college education is increasingly an expensive endeavour. With sticker prices of top schools soaring over $200,000, figuring out how to pay for college is more important than ever.
The good news: there are some clever ways you can maximize your financial aid. Here are the 5 top ways to make the most of financial aid.
To be clear, none of this is professional legal, tax, or financial advice. You should always consult a professional advisor before you make decisions about your personal situation.
1. File FAFSA Early
Believe it or not, one of the best ways to maximize your financial aid package is to file your FAFSA as early as possible.
This is because some schools, and now seven states—Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington—award aid money on a first-come, first-served basis until funds are depleted.
If you’re applying in select locations, failing to file your FAFSA early can literally be a costly mistake. In general, it’s good practice to file in January when registration opens.
2. Move the Money
Call your parents over for this one. Before you begin the financial aid process, consider moving the aspiring student’s assets over to the parents’ personal accounts.
Here’s why: when the Department of Education reviews your income, asset and family information, it will come up with a figure known as your EFC, or Expected Family Contribution.
The EFC is how much money you’re supposed to be able to pay toward college expenses.
So, the college you attend will use that EFC figure to determine how much aid you get.
“Assets belonging to the student are assessed at a 20% rate. Parents’ assets are assessed at 5.65%.”
However, under current financial aid formulas, your EFC is higher when there are assets specifically in the student’s name. That’s because all assets belonging to the student are assessed at a 20% rate. But a parent’s assets are assessed at 5.65%.
So for example, for every $10,000 in student assets, your EFC goes up by 20% or $2,000. But for every $10,000 in a parents’ assets your EFC goes up 5.65% or $565.
By strategically positioning your family funds, and keeping large assets out of the student’s name, you can increase your eligibility for thousands of dollars in additional college financial aid. Moving over the funds effectively shields it from being considered a child's asset while retaining a parent’s ability to put it towards college.
3. Use Cash to Pay Down Debt
Having debt like credit cards or car loans doesn’t reduce your eligibility for financial aid, but having cash does.
“Common advice: pay down debt and make big purchases before filing the FAFSA.”
If you have a lot of savings consider spending some of those savings towards paying off your debt. This has the primary advantage of reducing your EFC, the asset base by which your need is assessed.
As with any financial plan, be sure to consult with a financial advisor.
4. Don’t Overstate Your Assets
When you’re filing your FAFSA, pay very close attention to every question that asks about your assets and income.
This is important, as you are legally allowed to exclude or omit certain income sources and various assets you may own.
For example, you don’t need to report any of the following as assets:
Your primary residence
A boat you may own or furniture in your home
Untaxed Social Security as income
Mistakenly reporting these items on your FAFSA can unwittingly increase your EFC, thereby slashing your college financial aid.
5. Appeal Your Financial Aid Package
So you got in to your dream school but you get a disappointing financial aid package. It’s a gut-wrenching scenario, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the line.
You can appeal and even negotiate your financial aid package.
If you had a substantial change to your financial aid or if other schools have awarded you wildly different aid packages, it may be worth contacting the financial aid office.
Remember, always remain grateful and courteous, while making a strong case for yourself. Be prepared to provided supplemental documentation supporting your claim as well as information requested by the school.
Bonus Tip: Make College Cost Less!
This one is a little sneaky. Any aid you get can go a lot further at a school that is more affordable.
A really smart way to do this: start college at a 2-year community college, and then transfer after two years. This is especially helpful when your financial aid doesn’t quite cover all the costs you need for four years -- it might just be enough for your final 2 years at that expensive dream school.
Plus, if you do well during your first two years, you’ll be in a better position to fill the gap with scholarships when it comes time to transfer.