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Tips for Navigating Financial Aid

The first in our series on how students, families, and colleges can find their way through the government’s “FAFSA Fiasco” 
Illustration of student on laptop on a pile of coins

Research has shown that simplifying the financial aid process can increase access to higher education for low-income students, but a three-year bipartisan effort to overhaul the federal financial aid system has been beset with problems. The new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form was supposed to streamline the task of filing for aid — by reducing the number of questions that students and families are asked, by making it easier to share federal tax data from the IRS, and expanding eligibility for Pell Grants, a type of aid for students with great financial need, among other changes. Instead, delays, technical glitches, and a major math mistake by the Department of Education have led to what has been dubbed the “FAFSA Fiasco.” Now advocates fear the recent experiences could deter poorer and first-generation students, including students of color, from pursuing their college dreams.

Kevin Fudge, Ed.M.'08, a higher education finance executive who has been a consultant to schools and families for 20 years, has some advice for prospective college students and their families applying for financial aid for the next academic year and in the (hopefully easier) years to come:

Suggestions for students and families 

First and foremost, don’t skip the FAFSA

Everybody should apply for financial aid this year and every year, no matter what, says Fudge — don’t be put off by the recent challenges. Remember, colleges, universities, and trade/vocational schools use the information submitted on the FAFSA form to determine eligibility for a range of aid including school-based grants, scholarships, federal work-study funds, and loans each year. Some colleges and universities also require students to complete the CSS Profile, a second aid application, in order to receive non-federal institutional aid.

Seek out help

Applying for financial aid can be confusing at the best of times, but help is available. Although phone lines were jammed at the height of the technical issues with the new form, assistance is more readily available now and Fudge says federal student aid customer service has “improved dramatically over the last 10 years.” 

School counselors and nonprofit organizations such as uAspire can help too, and some colleges run FAFSA workshops and webinars to assist prospective students. Don’t forget, the application is free, and you shouldn’t be charged for help.

Keep calm 

College financial aid packages will be late this year because of delays processing applications at the Education Department but Fudge, who always tries to reduce students’ and families’ anxieties, says “recognize the [current] situation is universal. This is not unique to you.” While it may seem counterintuitive, “the more relaxed approach you take, the better off you'll be,” he adds. “It may feel like maybe the train is careening toward the ravine with no bridge … but it's going to be okay. Just start from that premise.” 


Use the FAFSA delay to your advantage. Fudge argues the current problems will likely put more pressure on some colleges — to meet their enrollment numbers and secure their class — than families, and may create more opportunities for prospective students to shop around for the best financial deal. 

Use a net price calculator

You can compare costs between schools by using a net price calculator on a college or university’s website. Remember, even if the sticker price is similar the net price will be different because each institution has its own way of determining grants, scholarships, and other aid for each prospective student. It’s also important to remember that any net price you’re given is only an estimate and it is not legally binding. “The disclaimers on the net price calculators are very, very clear,” about this, explains Fudge. It is also worth noting that, even if you have received a letter with a merit award from a university, you won’t know the final amount you have to pay until you receive your official financial aid award letter. The letter will include federal money and any institutional aid the college is giving you.

Carefully consider what you can afford 

Parents should think long-term. Do you have more children who are also planning to go to college in the years ahead? Would a state school be more affordable than a private one? 

“Don't overestimate the ability to reduce costs at a private institution in future years,” Fudge warns. If your student lives on campus, they could reduce or eliminate their room and board by becoming a resident assistant, for example, but there is no guarantee it will happen.

Parents, be prepared to negotiate with your kid 

If your student is determined to attend a more expensive school than you can afford, Fudge recommends the following. 

Tell them they have to:

  1. Contribute something financially. Your student could take a summer job or a part-time gig on campus to help with costs.
  2. Take classes at a local community college to satisfy some of the general ed requirements and knock a semester off. At a private school, this strategy could potentially reduce costs by tens of thousands of dollars.
  3. Be willing to change course if the numbers don’t add up. 

“If the attempt in the second year to reduce costs, by being a resident advisor or other means, doesn't make a significant enough dent in your overall costs, then the student, in my opinion, should be willing to pull the ripcord and shift course,” says Fudge, “because if the numbers don't add up, the numbers don't add up, and we have to think long-term versus short-term happiness.” 

Set expectations

It is worth noting that “the perception [of college] does not necessarily match reality,” explains Fudge. Counselors and parents (if they have been to college themselves) can help manage expectations which can be especially helpful in the age of curated social media messages. Soon enough students will realize, “they’re not giving out backstage passes to see Taylor Swift,” Fudge says. “I mean, it is what it is.”

Be prepared to communicate with your college’s financial aid office
  • Find a single point of contact, if possible. 
  • Get your evidence together. If your family’s current financial situation does not reflect the financial situation that you have listed on your application for financial aid, make sure you have information to explain the discrepancy, says Fudge. (Such as a copy of your most recent tax return.) “That's the first variable that schools are going to look at when and if they decide to make an adjustment to your financial aid package.”
  • Keep your communications brief and polite and be patient as you await a response.

Suggestions for colleges and universities

Fudge, who also has experience working in admissions, has some advice for colleges and universities too: 

Extend enrollment deadlines beyond May 1

Be flexible with enrollment deadlines this year. Students will need time to compare financial aid packages from different colleges and a compressed timeline won’t help.

“My hope is that the competitive aspect of colleges as businesses will melt away a little bit, and we can realize that we'd like to be in the business of supporting and helping families, even though we have to meet our enrollment objectives,” Fudge says. 

Personalize the process

Care and empathy are the order of the day. Focus on the individual, not the masses, and be willing to walk prospective students and families through the financial aid process.

Lean into your mission and purpose 

Focus on what counts. In the increasingly competitive world of college admissions, schools can sometimes emphasize experiences — such as who has the prettiest campus or the best food — that detract “from the true mission of education beyond high school,” says Fudge. In his opinion, colleges should “provide foundational skills that a person can build a career off of,” and, at a time when faith in higher ed has been eroded, he encourages them to take a more pragmatic approach and double down on things they do well because “digging in on the competition is not a recipe for long-term success.” 

Be more transparent about costs

With private colleges, there can be a discrepancy between the sticker price, listed on a website or in a brochure, and the net price which can turn people off, says Fudge. Having more certainty about the real price earlier in the process would help.

What's next?

Fudge thinks policymakers should think outside the box with financial aid in the future. Instead of requiring students to opt into the system, how about automatically qualifying anyone who already receives public assistance for a maximum Pell Grant award or giving every student a $5,000 grant because education is a public good, he suggests. 

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