Panel of Experts

Karl Schellscheidt

SAT Prep Expert

  • BSE, Princeton University '90
  • M.A., Secondary Education Seton Hall University '93
  • J.D., University of Pennsylvania Law School '00

Fred Hargadon

Dean of Admission

  • Swarthmore College
  • Stanford University
  • Princeton University

Don Betterton

Financial Aid Expert

  • Director of Financial Aid, Princeton University (1973-2006)
  • Certified College Planner
  • Principal, Betterton College Planning

Seamus Malin

Admission Expert

  • Harvard University
    Dir. of Financial Aid
    Asst. Dean of Admission
    International Office Director

College Financial Aid Award Letters

Don Betterton -

eprep financial aid video

We pick up on our financial aid discussion for junior year and discuss the steps required to ultimately get your financial aid award letter. When and how should you estimate what your family is expected to pay for college? Do all colleges require the same financial aid forms? When will you receive your financial aid award letter, and what can you do if there’s still a major gap between what you’re expected to pay and what you are able to pay? Can you appeal a financial aid award to request more aid? What are the components in a typical financial aid package?

Guest expert Don Betterton discusses what steps you can take in the Spring of your junior year to begin estimating your financial aid profile relative to the colleges on your wish list. All colleges require the federal FAFSA form to be filled out. Some colleges (mostly the 400 or so competitive colleges) also require you fill out the PROFILE form, which is administered by the College Board and can result in a slightly different expected family contribution as the FAFSA. Thus, as Don points out, you should create two separate columns next to your list of colleges - one that shows expected contribution under the FAFSA and another under the PROFILE. You won’t have to officially submit both forms until after January 1 of your senior year, but it’s best to get an estimate junior year so that you can a financial “reality check” on your true ability to pay for your “wish list” colleges. Too often, students and parents put all their efforts into the college admissions process, only to discover too late that they cannot afford to attend the schools they so desperately and successfully were admitted.

College Financial Aid Award Letters (transcript)

Karl Schellscheidt- What I’m understanding is that the spring of junior year, and summer before senior year are really about educating yourself and getting a sense of how things may play out. When do you actually start filling out the forms? How many forms can you expect to fill out? I know there is a federal form and some schools have their own form, but it should be clear on the schools website, right?

Don Betterton- All colleges require you to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

Karl- So, you will definitely being filling out the FAFSA. Do you need to fill out the FAFSA multiple times for each separate school, or just once for all of your schools?

Don- The FAFSA is available on the web. Fill it out online and then list your colleges by code number, and it gets sent to the different colleges that you list. I believe the limit on the website is 6, so if you have more than 6 schools you might have to go back in and put the rest in there. It is a little bit like the common application system. You fill it out once and it is sent to your different colleges. The FAFSA won’t be filled out in the spring of your junior year, because it won’t be filed until after January 1st of your senior year in high school. We are preparing you in junior year so that the shock of what you have to fill out won’t be as much of a surprise.
For private institutions, there is also another form called the Profile, which is run by the College Board (the people who run the SAT). When you set up your list of the colleges and the cost of attendance, you really have to make two columns under each college. If the college only requires a FAFSA you can run what’s called a “FAFSA estimator”. If they require the Profile, the same websites I mentioned will also have a separate estimator attached to the Profile. They do things a little differently than the federal government does.
You are likely to have two different expected family contributions: the FAFSA side, and the Profile side. The difference could be as much as a couple thousand dollars.

Karl- Senior year you are actually going to fill out the forms and submit them. At what point in the process do you start to hear back from the colleges officially? Do you have to get accepted before you know what financial aid you get?

Don- Yes.

Karl- So, you’re only going to hear back on financial aid from the colleges that accept you as a student. Will they give you that information along with the acceptance letter or does it follow later?

Don- Sometimes they will give it to you with the acceptance letter. Now we’re skipping forward to senior year. You have filed the FAFSA and the Profile, if necessary, by January 1st. As the college goes through the admissions process, the financial aid staff will look at the admitted students. Normally, the admissions letters go out around March or April, and most colleges will try to put your financial aid award letter in with the admissions letter. You will find out if you are in and also how much the college is offering you. There are some colleges that will admit you first, and the aid will follow later on, which makes it a little more difficult.
Colleges that do rolling admissions, early action, or early decision are not likely to give you financial aid awards very early because you haven’t filed the forms yet. It really depends, but for normal admission in April, you can expect to get your financial aid award letter with your admissions letter, if you are accepted that is.

Karl- When you get your financial aid award, if you are unhappy with the bottom line number, is there any room for negotiation at that point? If you see a gap for yourself, you’re not sure how you are going to fill that gap and actually make it possible for you to attend that school, does it make any sense to write a letter or go back to the school and make an appeal? Is there any process like that, or is it a done deal take it or leave it?

Don- If the amount of money that shows up on the award letter makes it impossible or very difficult to attend that college, it is worthwhile to get in touch with the college and see if there is anything they can do to get you more financial aid. I believe there are two scenarios of this. There may be some financial aid information that has changed since you filled out the form. I call that a financial appeal, there are different numbers to present to them than they have acted on, and it seems perfectly reasonable to give them an update and have them recalculate.
The other situation is a bit more difficult. The numbers haven’t changed, you don’t quite feel it’s enough, and another college is giving you a little bit more money. That is normally called a competitive appeal. The school is maybe your number one choice, but there is better financial aid somewhere else. Then it is a good idea to call the college and see if it does any good to tell them your situation, perhaps bring a copy of another colleges award letter, and see whether that affects the chance of having a revised award or not. Some colleges will be receptive to that and act on it, and some colleges will be unaffected. That is the kind of thing you have to check individually with a college.

Karl- Let’s say you get an award letter and it says ten thousand dollars. Is that award likely to be a mix of grant and loan?

Don- Yes, it’s unlikely that the award will be one kind of anything. What they call it is a financial aid package because different things go together. The typical award would have a work-study job; the opportunity for the student to work at school during the year, get paid, and use that money for personal expenses.

Karl- What kind of jobs would that be?

Don- It could be a dining hall job, library, computer center, various things students can do on campus. The other part would be a loan. The government supports a very large student loan program. It is very likely that there will be a loan in the financial aid package, but the interest rates are very low, and the student does not have to pay the loan or interest off while they are in college.
The remaining need will be met with a scholarship or a grant. This is called gift aid that does not need to be repaid. The majority of awards will have a student job, a loan, and a grant in some combination.

Karl Schellscheidt

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