Getting to Know Your Financial Aid Office

September 23, 2021

Getting to Know Your Financial Aid Office

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College costs continue to rise. So does the number of students who receive financial aid. In 2020, 86% of college students used financial aid to pay for their degree. The federal government alone distributes $30 billion in financial aid every year. But where does that money go? And how can students make smart choices about their financial aid options?

Each college has a financial aid office to manage the many forms of financial aid. What does the financial aid office do? The financial aid office distributes scholarships, grants, and loans. The office also distributes the college's scholarships and grants. Applicants may receive a financial aid award letter from the financial aid office. Students also visit the financial aid office to learn about funding opportunities and debt management.

This guide walks through financial aid advisors' services and the most important questions for your financial aid office.

What Does the Financial Aid Office Do?

What does the financial aid office do? And what services does the financial aid office provide? Financial aid offices distribute aid to students, calculate financial aid awards, and help students navigate the financial aid process.

The office manages aid coming from multiple sources, including federal and state aid. Sources also include external scholarships and school aid. The office helps applicants determine their eligibility for aid and complete the required paperwork.

What is a Financial Aid Advisor?

A financial aid advisor works directly with prospective and current students to manage their financial aid. They inform students on their eligibility for aid, the FAFSA application process, and the school's aid process. Financial aid advisors also inform students about the attendance cost and financial aid opportunities.

Advisors educate students on financial aid and make sure students receive their aid. Financial aid advisors can also help degree-seekers make decisions about student loans and other financial aid.

What Services Does the Financial Aid Office Provide?

College financial aid offices help students understand their financial aid options, complete financial aid applications, and receive financial aid. They also provide information on the attendance cost and institutional aid. Students should contact their school's financial aid office to ask about the specific services they provide.

What Questions Should I Ask My Financial Aid Office?

Once students familiarize themselves with their college's financial aid office, they should reach out to get specific information about their school and financial circumstances. Make sure to ask "What services does the financial aid office provide?" along with "What's the total cost of college?" This section covers key questions for the financial aid office.

What's the Bottom Line: How Much Does it Cost?

Colleges post their tuition rates online. Many colleges also estimate fees, textbooks, and even living expenses. But students need more exact numbers when calculating their financial aid.

Visit the financial aid office to learn more about what expenses the school includes in their attendance cost numbers. Students can also ask about the difference between the net cost and actual attendance cost. Finally, learners may want to talk to the financial aid office about where they can cut costs. For example, colleges may offer multiple room and board or dining hall options. Choosing less expensive options will decrease the actual attendance cost.

How Do I Apply for Financial Aid?

Students at every accredited college can apply for financial aid. But schools use different financial aid forms and deadlines. The financial aid office can explain the process of applying for financial aid.

For example, most schools provide a financial aid timeline with suggested dates. Many schools recommend filing the FAFSA as soon as possible. The federal financial aid office makes the application available for the next year after Oct. 1. That's because many colleges award institutional aid on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Students can ask the financial aid office about what information they need to apply with their school. Degree-seekers should also find out when they will learn about their financial aid award.

What is My Financial Need?

Financial aid programs use different formulas to calculate the expected family contribution (EFC). That number represents how much the student and their family can pay out of pocket for college. The financial aid office can provide more information on the financial need calculation. The office can also explain how the attendance cost helps determine financial need. At most schools, financial need equals the attendance cost minus the EFC and any other financial aid.

Students with financial need may qualify for need-based aid. Merit-based aid, by contrast, funds students regardless of their financial need.

What is a Financial Aid Award Letter?

After submitting college applications, most applicants fill out their prospective schools' financial aid forms. Around the time schools send out admission letters, they also send financial aid award letters.

These letters detail the attendance cost, the student's expected contribution, and the applicant's eligibility for financial aid. Funding can come from federal grants and loans based on FAFSA data. Sources may also include institutional aid like scholarships or grants. Comparing financial aid award letters from multiple schools helps applicants choose a school.

The financial aid office can provide information on when applicants will receive the letter.

Will My Financial Aid Award Stay the Same?

Prospective students should always ask the financial aid office about their financial aid award terms. Eligibility for federal financial aid may change every year based on the student's financial circumstances, for example. Students who qualified for a Pell Grant one year may not qualify the next if their family's finances increase. Similarly, students who experience unemployment or other drops in income may qualify for more aid.

Institutional scholarships and grants may offer a one-year award or a multi-year award, depending on the school and award. Before accepting a financial aid award, contact the financial aid office to ensure you understand the award terms.

What If I Need More Financial Aid?

What if your financial aid award does not cover your costs? The financial aid office can help students appeal their financial aid award or explore other funding options. For example, financial aid advisors can connect students with information about student loans.

Financial aid varies widely depending on the college. For example, some schools commit to meeting every student's financial need, while others do not. As a result, students should ask the financial aid office about the school's policies on aid and work-study opportunities.

Will My Scholarship Affect My Financial Aid Award?

Private foundations, professional associations, businesses, and community groups award scholarships to college students. But before accepting an outside scholarship, students should visit the financial aid office. These scholarships can affect a student's financial aid award.

Colleges calculate a student's financial need when awarding aid. Scholarships lower students' financial need, which can potentially mean less financial aid. Schools may lower their institutional aid depending on the scholarship amount — a process known as scholarship displacement.

Students who receive scholarships can still apply for financial aid. However, they should report their scholarships to the financial aid office. The office also distributes outside scholarships to students.

Will I Have a Lot of Student Loan Debt?

Currently, 43 million Americans owe student loan debt — and the average debt is approaching $40,000 per borrower. Before taking out student loans, degree-seekers should visit the financial aid office to ask about debt management resources. The financial aid office connects students with financial education resources. These resources help students understand their monthly payments and debt terms.

The office also helps students reduce the number of loans they need to take out for school. Financial aid advisors can recommend other aid sources that do not require repayment. And they can help students evaluate the benefits of federal student loans over private loans.

Financial Aid Resources

Current and prospective students benefit from many financial aid resources. The following sites provide information on different types of financial aid, completing the FAFSA, and making the most of financial aid opportunities.

The ED offers many financial aid resources through its federal student aid office. The site includes resources on preparing for college and filling out the FAFSA. It also helps students make informed financial aid decisions. Big Future is a financial aid resource offered by College Board. The site provides information on completing the FAFSA. Big Future also includes a financial aid glossary and tips on receiving financial aid. Visitors can read articles on the CSS Profile and financial aid eligibility. FinAid offers financial aid calculators, resources on different types of financial aid, and tools for filling out the FAFSA. The site explains the difference between scholarships, grants, and loans. FinAid also helps students calculate their financial aid needs. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators advocates for higher education accessibility. The organization provides information on student financial aid. NASFAA offers specialized resources for students, parents, and counselors.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.

See articles by Genevieve

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