Financial Aid Director Offers Tips on Getting Money for College

So, you've run yourself ragged making sure your college-bound teenager got his or her admissions applications in on time and now it's time to relax, right? Sorry, but there's still the issue of how you're going to pay for it all. With the economy and tuition jumping in opposite directions, many families who never thought they would need help paying for their kid's education are finding themselves daunted by the prospect of funding four (or five) years of the college experience. But college financial aid offices can help. Marie Mons, director of Student Financial Planning and Services at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, answers some common questions and tells parents and students the seven deadly sins to avoid when playing the college financial aid game.

Q: Should I apply for financial aid, even if I think I won't get it because I make too much money?
A: Absolutely. We can't promise that if you apply for aid, you'll get it. But we can promise you won't get it if you don't apply.

Q: Is the admissions application the same as a financial aid application?
A: In most cases, no. At most schools you still need to fill out a financial aid application if you want to apply for scholarships and federally financed student loans and grants.

Q: What is a FAFSA and do I really need to fill it out?
A: The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and as the name implies, there is no application fee. The U.S. Department of Education requires that you fill one out if you want to receive federally financed grants and loans. The FAFSA measures the your ability to contribute financially to your child's education. The good news is you don't have to fill out one for each school that your son or daughter has applied to, because the Department of Education sends your form to all the schools you select.

Q: Once I fill out the FAFSA, do I still need to fill out a financial aid application?
A: Every school is different, but in most cases you'll need to fill out both forms. When in doubt call your school's financial aid office, believe it or not, we actually like helping people get money and we want to make sure you get whatever assistance you qualify for.

Q: How do you determine what I have to pay?
A: Well, first your student has to be accepted to the university, naturally. After that, we rely on the income and necessary expenditure statements that you provide, as well as your tax statements. And no, that trip to Europe you took last summer and that new BMW you just bought doesn't count toward your necessary expenditures. We're looking at true necessities, like if someone in your family requires expensive medical care. Of course, we do flag some applications to verify the information in them. The Department of Education also verifies some applications.

Q: You look at my tax statements? What if I haven't filed yet, or I need an extension?
A: Be careful about filing for extensions, because it can delay your award. If we find we need to "verify" your statements, then that could add even more time, while other parents and students are snatching up the available money, which could end up affecting your award.

Q: How much financial information do I need to put on those aid forms?A: All household income and most assests, including your own and your spouse's as well as your student's income. Some schools require additional information, like the student's grandparents' income and/or income from divorced parents.

Q: What happens if my financial circumstances change after I've submitted my forms? For instance, if someone in the household loses a job?
A: Unfortunately, that situation is becoming more common in this economy. If that happens, contact your school's financial aid office and let them know. They'll be able to tell you the procedure they use for documenting changes in financial status. Of course, if you win the lottery, the financial aid office will want to know that too, but then again, they'll probably see it on the news.

Q: What if my student has special needs? Is that taken into account when determining the amount of financial aid?
A: If your student has needs that will make the cost of his or her education more expensive than that of the typical student, such as special materials for the visually impaired, then you might be eligible to receive more aid. Be sure to let your school's financial aid office know if your child has any special circumstances.

Q: Can't I just declare my child financially independent and be done with it?
A: Nice try, but unless your child is older than 24, applying to graduate school, a veteran with an honorable discharge, married, has legal dependants of his or her own, or is an orphan (in which case we wouldn't be having this conversation), the federal government considers your child to be financially dependent on you.

The Seven Deadly Sins People Commit When Trying to Get Financial Aid

Skip the application.
It's like the lotto. You can't win if you don't play.

Apply late.
Deadlines are important and most people applying for aid meet them. So, don't expect much sympathy if you're late.

Apply incompletely.
The applications are important, so fill in every line. This is not the SAT, where you're supposed to leave a question blank if you don't know the answer. If you don't know the answer, find out, or call the financial aid office for help.

Don't accept the offer.
If you don't respond to the offer for aid, the financial aid office assumes you don't want the money.

Refuse to provide a social security number or provide an incorrect number.
This is government money. They already know your social security number. So, while it's not a good idea to give your social security number to telemarketers or the guy on the corner selling hot dogs, giving it to the financial aid office is essential if you want the money.

Neglect to report changes in financial circumstances.
If your financial resources suddenly bottom out, let the financial aid office know. Many awards are based on financial need, so if you have that need, make it known.

Wait until you receive an admissions acceptance letter before applying for aid.
For many schools the deadline for applying for financial aid is close to or earlier than the day they send out acceptance letters. So, give yourself enough time and apply early so you don't commit sin number two.