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Seven Questions To Ask the Financial Aid Officer

A firsthand look
College visits are one of the most important steps in the process towards college selection. Too often, however, they consist of a student-guided tour that is carefully planned and shallow in substance. If you've accompanied your college-bound child, don't leave campus until you have visited the financial aid office.

Call the financial aid office ahead of time to make sure that a financial aid officer (FAO) will be there to help you. People sometimes find FAOs more difficult to deal with than other administrative people. Keep in mind that they are often caught between a "rock and a hard place," trying to help out everyone as much as possible. They have a tough job, so be patient and diplomatic when dealing with them. Face-to-face contact now may "pay off" in the spring of your child's senior year.

Don't forget: When you're asking financial aid questions, ask the financial aid office instead of the admissions office. Don't trust what you hear from admissions about financial aid (or, for that matter, what you will hear on "Financial Aid Night" back at your hometown high school), or vice versa. They may have the general idea, but not all the details.

The questions
Okay, here they are. By asking an FAO these questions at each school in which your child is interested, you will get a much better idea of the ones that are financially feasible for your child to attend. Once you have had a couple of these dialogues with FAOs, you'll get more comfortable with it and will be able to discern the "good answers" from the less attractive ones.

  1. What are your financial aid deadlines?
    This soft opening question will reveal what forms you need to submit, to whom, and when. There may be both the usual ones, the FAFSA and PROFILE, plus the college's own forms. There may also be different forms for need-based and merit-based aid. It's best to clarify all this in your mind now. By the way, it usually works out that the more forms they require, the more money they have – but also the tighter they may be with it.

  2. What is your cost of attendance (COA) for the current year?
    If your child is a junior, colleges won't have the numbers for her freshman college year until April or even June of her senior high school year, so you will have to base your estimate on this year's numbers. There are precisely six components to a college student's complete budget:

    • Tuition
    • Fees
    • Room and Board
    • Books and Supplies
    • Personal expenses
    • Transportation

    Many budgets you will see include only Direct Costs (which are the first three items listed) and what you will pay directly to the bursar's office. However, the Department of Education requires that colleges fully inform you as to all of the above costs, so find out specifically what those amounts are.

  3. How much of an increase in the cost of attendance (COA) do you project for next year?
    When you ask this, ask to get the components separately. Tuition and room and board increases are independent of each other. For example, at one school they may expect an increase of 5 percent in tuition and fees, but a 10 percent increase in room and board. Even if it makes little difference in dollars, just asking detailed questions like this gives the impression that you know what you are talking about.

  4. Do you use your own Institutional Methodology to determine need?
    If you ask this question, the FAO will know that he is having a conversation with an educated customer! Your goal here is to get a sense of how deeply they will delve into your financial profile.

  5. Are you able to meet 100 percent of financial need?
    If they say "no," find out why, and get details. Is it "first come, first served"? What's the average percentage of need they can meet? What percentage is grants and what is loans? Do they have a dollar amount they leave as a gap (unmet need) for everyone?

  6. In what order do you create the Financial Aid Package?
    That is, when creating the package, do they first fill the aid package up with loans, or do they figure a grant for the student first? The answer to this question may tell you a few things. A financially strong school that wants your child to attend will say "grants before self-help." But so will a college that understands good marketing – they know that's what you want to hear. Most colleges will actually begin to build the financial package with student loans, no matter what they claim. You may learn more from how the answer is given, rather than what is said.

    You should also ask if the financial aid office treats parent loans (PLUS Loans) as an option when figuring how the school will meet your need. If so, this is a financial sleight of hand, which usually means that the school simply doesn't have the money. Remember, PLUS loans are for helping with your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) after the aid given is subtracted from the full cost of attendance, as outlined in Question 2.

    An important fact to keep in mind is that the higher your child is in the applicant pool, the greater the chance for more grant assistance. This is called "financial aid leveraging" in financial aid parlance. So you and your child should remember that he wants to apply to colleges where he will stand above the other applicants.

  7. Do you offer Merit Scholarships, and how do you treat private scholarships that my child may earn on his own?
    If a Merit Scholarship is being awarded, it normally goes into the package first, reducing the amount of need-based aid. Find out if a merit award reduces the self-help in the package, or if it replaces other need-based grants. A true Merit Scholarship can go beyond the "need" level, which means that it can lower your EFC. If it doesn't go beyond your "need" level, then the college is being misleading by advertising a need-based award as non-need based. Or at least the award is limited by need, which in effect is the same thing as a need-based grant.

    Note: The prestigious Ivy and "small ivies" (Wesleyan, Williams, etc.) do not offer Merit Scholarships. The scholarships and grants offered at these schools are based on the particular formulas they use to determine need.

Well, there you have it. If you can get accurate answers to these seven questions, you will be miles ahead of most families making college visits. And you'll be well prepared to sit down with your future college student and discuss the academic, social, and financial pros and cons of each college on her list.

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