How to Prepare for Financial Aid like a High School Freshman
During my tenure as a financial aid officer from MIT, Babson College, and other schools, I read thousands of financial aid apps and talked to hundreds of mothers and fathers about how they could cover their talk about of the costs of their children’s educations. I learned very quickly that the previously a family began to think about how they would certainly pay for their children’s education, the more likely they would be able to do so without too much financial stress.
Whenever you get right down to it, there are 3 ways students can secure money to reduce the costs of their undergraduate educations. First, there is need-based financial aid: the cash that colleges and the federal and state government provide to students right after some kind of analysis of their family’s ability to pay for college. Second, there are “outside scholarships”: money that the student may compete for and—if they win—bring with them to any college they decide to attend. And third, there are scholarships awarded by the colleges themselves.
You can begin to strategize regarding need-based financial aid at any time, and should possess a plan in place by the middle of the student’s freshman year in high school, from which point parents should have a sense of whether need-based financial aid is a realistic possibility for them. Families that will have to liquidate assets to pay for some of their children’s educations should learn about the concept of “base year”: the idea that parental incomes are fairly constant from year-to-year, and that colleges can use income information from the taxes year that closed prior to the student’s enrollment to estimate the resources the family will have available to them during the academic year. Families liquidating assets must do so before the base year regarding freshman year of college begins to minimize financial aid impacts.
Family members can also develop a strategy to increase the possibility that their children will win outside scholarships through advance preparation. Rather than waiting to find scholarships until their senior year of high school, they should plan ahead. Students should conduct their scholarship searches as early as junior year, identifying scholarships that they can qualify for and win in the future. Then spend the remaining time until apps are due making sure they are an ideal example of what the scholarship providers are looking for.
Finally, consider developing a strategy to increase the student’s chances of successful scholarships from the colleges themselves. With College Coach, we believe that early planning around college scholarships is the greatest way to secure a quality education for the student at a discount. As the pupil begins to develop an interest in specific colleges (or sets of colleges, if they are settling in on a main or career path), investigate exactly what scholarships the colleges offer. May the student become a stronger applicant for scholarships at the specific schools they are interested in? Can they adjust their extra-curricular involvement, or increase their GPA enough, to change from an material candidate to a scholarship candidate? It’s much easier to make this transition happen starting in 10 th grade, than it is within 12 th grade.
As with all of aspects of the college application process, just a little preparation goes a long way in ascertaining need-based financial aid, outside scholarships, and college-based scholarships. Strategizing early on within high school can save families a lot of stress—financial and otherwise—when those college bills finally come due.
Robert Weinerman is a member of College Coach’s team of university finance experts . Before becoming a member of College Coach, Robert worked like a Senior Financial Aid Officer at DURCH and Babson College.