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    Top 12 Financial Aid Questions You Should Be Asking

    By Zach Skillings

    Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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    Reviewed by Caitlyn Cole

    Caitlyn Cole is a college access professional with a decade of experience in non-profit program and project management for college readiness and access organizations.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: October 2nd, 2023
    Top 12 Financial Aid Questions You Should Be Asking

    As much as we wish it wasn’t, money is a big part of determining where you attend college. Ideally, you’ll go to the school of your choice while keeping the cost of attendance as low as possible. In order to make that happen, you’ll want a good understanding of how financial aid works at different schools. Fortunately, we’ve put together a list of the top financial aid questions you should be asking colleges. 

    See also: Top questions to ask on a college campus visit

    1. What’s the net price of going to school here?

    Students and families rarely end up paying the full “sticker price” that colleges list as their cost of attendance. The actual cost of attendance (known as the net price) is discounted by financial aid packages that consist of scholarships and grants. That’s why it’s so critical to consider the net price of going to college, especially if you’re applying to schools with high sticker prices. 

    After taking financial aid packages into account, you could be looking at a much lower cost of attendance. Colleges are required to supply a net price calculator on their website, but it’s worth checking with the school to see if it’s up to date and accurate. 

    2. What kind of need-based financial aid do you offer? 

    Need-based financial aid is one of the primary ways that students can reduce the cost of attending college. This type of award is based solely on your family’s financial situation. While the federal government is the largest awarder of need-based aid, many states as well as colleges and universities also offer need-based scholarships. As such, you should definitely inquire about need-based financial aid at the schools you’re considering. 

    1. What kind of merit-based financial aid do you offer? 

    Along with need-based financial aid, many colleges offer merit-based scholarships. These types of scholarships are awarded on the basis of academic, athletic, or artistic merit. Merit-based financial aid practices vary between colleges, so it’s important to check with the different schools you’re considering. If you’re awarded merit-based financial aid, you should see if it’s a one-time award or if it’s renewable every year you’re enrolled at the school. 

    1. What work-study opportunities are there?

    Another way to pay for college is through federal work-study programs. These programs help students with financial need get part-time jobs to help finance their college education. Most work study jobs are on-campus, but students may find off-campus employment in certain circumstances. The money you earn is used to pay for your college-related expenses such as tuition, fees, room, and board. Your school’s financial aid office will have direct knowledge about work study opportunities, so be sure to check with them if you’re interested. 

    5. How will outside scholarships affect my financial aid?

    Outside scholarships are awarded by organizations other than the government or your college. They’re usually given out by companies, foundations, and nonprofits. If you receive an outside scholarship, this may reduce the amount of financial aid you receive from your school. If all the aid you receive (including outside scholarships, financial aid from your college, and government grants and loans) ends up being $300 or more above your calculated need, your college is required to reduce the amount of need-based financial aid it awards you. However, it’s up to the college to decide what to cut. Some schools may reduce the amount of your loans (which would be to your benefit), while others may reduce your grants. 

    6. Will this school meet my full demonstrated financial need?

    Some schools are more generous than others when it comes to meeting financial aid needs. Many colleges are committed to meeting 100% of their students’ financial need with no loans. These colleges use grants and scholarships to close the gap between financial need and cost of attendance. However, this isn’t always the case. The reality is that most colleges can’t meet 100% of students’ financial need. If your school won’t meet your full demonstrated need, ask how much aid they’re capable of providing. 

    7. On average, how much debt do students have when they graduate from this school?

    This is another way to gauge how generous a school is regarding their financial aid policies. By asking this question, you may get a sense of the type of student loan debt you could accumulate at a certain school. According to recent data from the Education Data Initiative, the average student loan debt is $37,338. However, students incur varying levels of debt at different colleges depending on how much financial aid is awarded. 

    8. Can I expect to receive a similar financial aid package all four years?

    If you’re awarded a financial aid package, it’s important to understand how your need will be met during your entire college career. Some scholarships cover just one year, while others are renewable for multiple years. Additionally, some colleges front-load their grants. This means students receive more grants during their first year or two on campus. Other schools distribute their grants evenly across all four years. Financial aid packages aren’t always what they seem at first glance, so make sure that you understand the finer details

    9. Does this school practice need-blind admissions? 

    Need-blind admissions is a policy in which schools do not consider an applicant’s financial situation when deciding on admission. In other words, need-blind colleges evaluate applicants exclusively on their merit instead of their ability to pay. Schools that practice need-blind admissions usually offer generous financial aid packages to their admitted students. However, need-blind schools do not always meet students’ full demonstrated financial need. 

    10. When should I apply for financial aid and when can I expect to hear back? 

    Instead of asking a school about their financial aid deadline, ask when the best date to apply is. In some cases, you can miss out on financial aid if you wait until the deadline to apply. Some aid is first-come, first-served, so you should ask about opening dates and priority deadlines for grants and scholarships. 

    Additionally, ask when you can expect to receive a financial award letter. Most schools send out award notifications in March or April, but some may provide you with information earlier. Colleges are required to send financial aid award letters by May 1, which is the deadline for accepting offers of admission. 

    11. Do you require students to fill out the CSS Profile?

    The CSS Profile is an application used by colleges to determine a student’s eligibility for institutional financial aid. This type of financial aid is separate from aid that a student may receive from the government through the FAFSA. This means the schools that require students to complete the CSS Profile also require them to fill out the FAFSA. The CSS Profile is not a replacement for the FAFSA. The CSS Profile is currently used by about 400 colleges and universities, so make sure to check with individual schools. 

    12. Can you match a financial aid offer from another college?

    While this isn’t always the case, schools sometimes get competitive with each other for top students. If your first choice college is offering you less money than other schools, it can’t hurt to ask if they can match an offer. Keep in mind that colleges will request the other offer in writing. 

    Be prepared for your next campus visit with financial aid questions that will make a difference in your future. Good luck!

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • If you have any questions about financial aid, it’s important that you ask them before agreeing to take out any loans, receive any grants or participate in any programs like federal work study
    • Take time to understand terms that you may come across, such as cost of attendance, expected family contribution, need-blind admissions, merit based scholarships and more, as understanding terms like these will help you make any decisions 
    • Financial aid can be a very time sensitive process, which means you should start any financial aid paperwork early and be aware of any strict deadlines that could impact the aid you receive
    • Finally, keep in mind that the aid you receive one year, will not always be the same for each year you attend a college, financial aid is an ongoing process that you’ll need to be on top of

    Frequently asked questions about financial aid

    How much financial aid can I get?

    How much financial aid you receive is really dependent upon a multitude of factors. Where are you going to school? What scholarships do you have? What does your financial aid situation look like? For a closer look at what you might expect to receive, you should speak to colleges directly that you are applying to, or use a net price calculator.

    What salary is too high for financial aid?

    There is no income limit to the FAFSA. This means that all students are welcome to apply. Students will need to reapply every year to see what they are eligible for. Again, speaking to your college directly about questions like these will be very important, as they are the ones who will be able to give you the most accurate answers to questions like these.

    Does my parent's income affect my FAFSA?

    Yes, your parent’s income can affect your FAFSA application if you are filing as a dependent student, which most students are. However, in addition to income, they will also ask you about several other financial aspects. So, while income is a factor, it’s not the only factor.

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