Congratulations! You’ve just gotten into college. Now, how will you pay for it? See more college pictures.
Planning for college expenses is one of the biggest financial projects that a family can undertake. colleges is now $35,636 and it’s increasingly easy to break into the six figure range, especially for advanced degrees [source: Lewin]. Parents, you’ve probably wondered just how you’ll afford to send your child to the college or university that he or she has dreamed about and earned the right to attend. Just remember one thing: Paying for college is a family affair. Parents and students must work together to make college affordable. Obviously, the earlier you start, the easier it will be. However, it’s never too late to make a difference.
What Is Financial Aid?
There are a variety of financial aid tools available to students today, including scholarships, need based awards, work study employment and student loans. Let’s start with need based financial aid.
Nearly two thirds of today’s full time college students receive some form of need based aid [source: NCES]. Need based financial aid eligibility is based on two calculations the total cost of education and the family’s ability to pay. The cost of education can vary significantly from institution to institution. Generally, these calculations include all reasonable costs (tuition, room, board and living expenses) of attendance.
To apply for need based financial aid, families must complete the Free Application for Financial Aid (FAFSA) and, if appropriate, the College Scholarship Service’s PROFILE application. These documents are used to determine what amount, if any, a family (and that means both parent and student) can contribute to the annual cost of attendance. That number is known as the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The specific amount of your EFC may vary somewhat from institution to institution, but the formulas in place ensure that most EFCs are similar.
The formulas consider a variety of family circumstances when determining eligibility. (The College Board Web site has some great financial aid calculators you can use.) Consequently, there’s no real cut off point or maximum income a family can have and still qualify for assistance. Even if you have a comparatively high income, you may still qualify for need based aid, particularly if you have more than one child in college. Every student, regardless of financial situation, should consider applying for need based aid to see what happens.
How Do I Apply for Need Based Aid?
Tony Dejak/AP Images
If there are any extenuating circumstances affecting your ability to pay for college, your school’s financial aid office should be able to help.
There are two need based aid applications being used nationally, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Scholarship Service’s PROFILE. The FAFSA is the application for all federal funds and is required by all institutions of higher learning. Many institutions will require complete copies of your most recent tax and W 2 forms.
The PROFILE, which is generally viewed as the application for private or institutional funds, is required by many but not all institutions. If you’re applying to a college whose aid awards include significant levels of institutional funding, there is a good chance that the school will require both forms. If you’re unsure which form(s) is required, check with your school’s financial aid office.
The FAFSA and the PROFILE rely heavily on numbers from your income tax returns. If you’re applying as a dependent of your parents, then the numbers will come from your parents’ tax returns. If you are applying as an independent, then use your own tax returns.
In addition to income and asset information, each form also collects demographic data including family size, parent age, number of students in college and other related information. You’re also invited to provide each school with information on any extenuating circumstances that affect your family’s ability to support educational expenses. Take advantage of the opportunity to provide this information by writing directly to the college(s) you’re considering. Don’t be shy others won’t be.
Formulas and Applying for Financial Aid
Are You Divorced?
The custodial parent must complete both the FAFSA and PROFILE. Some
schools that require the PROFILE will also require that the
non custodial parent complete a Divorced and Separated Form. This
document will be included in the PROFILE and should be submitted
directly to the college or university. If it’s inappropriate for the
non custodial parent to complete the form, or if he or she refuses, the
custodial parent should write to the school to request an exception to
this policy. If the custodial parent has remarried, the stepparent must
also complete the FAFSA. There are no exceptions. PROFILE schools will
often require information on stepparents as well.
Both the Department of Education and the College Scholarship Service apply "need analysis" formulas to the information your financial aid applications supply. The government’s formula is called the Federal Methodology and the CSS/PROFILE formula is called the Institutional Methodology. Both formulas which were designed by Congress and by the educational community respectively differ in important ways, but each estimates how much your family can provide toward educational expenses in the upcoming year.
In general, the Institutional Methodology considers more sources of income and assets than the Federal Methodology. Examples include home equity, non custodial parent income and expected student earnings from summer jobs. For this reason, the Estimated Family Contribution calculated by the Institutional Methodology is often higher than the EFC calculated using the Federal Methodology.
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