Applying for financial aid can be very daunting, especially if you don't have someone to turn to who has been through it. Not only do these families share their experiences — good and bad — they also reveal what they would do differently. If you can learn from them, you will be better able to use the system to your advantage.
We have changed the names of the families to protect their privacy.
Investigate financial aid opportunities no matter what
Susan Criswell can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Of her three children, two have graduated from college and the third is entering her sophomore year. But what makes this widowed mother's story so amazing is that even though she lives on a fixed income, she sent all three girls to school without the benefit of any student aid. How? By sending all three to state universities.
Criswell admits that she didn't spend much time looking into financial aid for college. "I just assumed that if I owned a home and had money in the bank," she says, "I wouldn't be eligible." Her daughters' high school counselors did not offer much guidance regarding financial aid information. Rather, they helped the girls narrow down their college choices based on what Criswell could afford to spend out-of-pocket.
Looking back, Criswell regrets that she didn't understand the process, which meant that her daughters were limited in their choices. If she had it all to do again, she would do three things differently:
- She wouldn't have allowed her kids to wait until senior year to look for schools. This limited the number of colleges they were able to consider.
- Criswell would have taken her children to see potential colleges before they sent in their applications.
- Finally, Criswell reflects, "I should have gone to the colleges and spoken to someone about our options."
Learn all you can about student aid
Most students rely on their parents to figure out financial aid information. But what happens when your parents are immigrants who don't speak much English? "I had to do everything on my own," says Marisol Veracruz.
Veracruz began thinking about student financial aid in the middle of her junior year of high school. "My parents make a modest income, and there are two of us going to college at the same time, so I knew there was going to be financial aid." Veracruz spent a lot of time in her guidance counselor's office, learning as much as she could. Thanks to her counselor, she discovered her home state of New Jersey's Equal Opportunity Fund (EOF). The Fund provides grant money to residents of the state who can demonstrate financial need and the motivation to pursue higher education.
Veracruz also contacted the financial aid offices of the schools to which she applied whenever she had questions. She was surprised by the awards she received from New Jersey's Montclair State and Rutgers Universities. She chose Rutgers, and in her second year she was again surprised by how large her package was. Besides the EOF grant, a Perkins Loan, and a subsidized loan, Veracruz's aid package includes work-study. "I've gotten $2,000 a year in work-study. That's been helpful."
She offers two pieces of advice to families who are applying for financial aid for college:
- "The sooner you can start the process, the better. If you wait until you're a senior, you're just going to panic."
- "Keep all of your paperwork from each school in a separate file when you're sending out aid applications. As the days went by, I could check to see if I was on the right track."
Consider many sources of student financial aid
Barbara Wilk's daughter Tiffany had high SAT scores, strong grades, and plenty of extracurricular activities. "Everything," says Wilk, "that you were supposed to do to get all the money you could get."
The Wilks were thrilled when Tiffany received merit awards from Lehigh and Lafayette. But the awards were not enough to make a significant difference. Wilk says that when you're looking at such a large expense, "It's not about what the college is giving you, it's about what you have left to pay."
The Wilks took the next natural step: they applied for need-based aid. Wilk and her husband were proud that they had paid off the mortgage on their home. But every student aid officer the Wilks spoke to had the same response: "For the equity that you have in the house, you can send three children to this school." Need-based aid would not be available. In the end, the Wilks took out a home-equity loan. "You owe your child an education, so you need to put in some of your own money to show your child the value of it."
To offset costs, the Wilks had several recommendations:
- Look into private scholarships. "There are a lot of scholarships out there — religious, cultural, heritage affiliations — but you have to search them out."
- Look into private schools that offer tuition reductions. Because of Tiffany's strong SAT score, Rider offered to knock enough off to make the cost equal to that of a state university. "But parents beware," she warns, "if your child does not maintain an academic average, you lose it all!"
- Don't rush to pay off your house. It isn't worth it.