10 Financial Aid Mistakes College Students Make

10 Financial Aid Mistakes College Students Make (1)-1

It’s that time of year….TAX SEASON!! Well, that too (which is a very important part of this blog). With every new January 1 comes the reminder that, if someone in your household is a current or soon-to-be undergraduate, then finding financial aid should be a high on your priority list of things to do right now.

As the cost of a college education continues to increase, many students and families worry about how they will fund their education. In my workshops and webinars, I try to help students and parents find as much financial aid as possible. However, many of them think they have it all figured out….and don’t……they so don’t.

The fact is that college students (and parents) make a number of financial aid mistakes that cost them thousands of dollars each year. No matter what you think you know, there’s something you don’t. Make sure you’re NOT making any of these, and you’re well on your way to minimizing the cost of a college education:

  1. Not submitting the FAFSA…yearly. Everyone knows to submit the FAFSA as a high-school senior, right?? Well, hopefully they do. But it’s important to remember that the FAFSA is only for one academic year. It must be submitted every year that a student plans to be enrolled in college. So plan to dedicate some time to updating and submitting the FAFSA.

IMPORTANT UPDATE #1: Currently, there is no longer a PIN number required to access your FAFSA info. Instead, a Federal Student Aid ID must be created, which includes a username and password. This will be used to access accounts and sign the FAFSA.

IMPORTANT UPDATE #2: This is the LAST YEAR FOR JAN 1 FILINGS!! For the FAFSA that includes the 2017-2018 academic year, students will be able to submit the FAFSA as early as October 1, 2016, instead of January 1, 2017. This means you can submit your FAFSA for the upcoming school year 3 months earlier than before (October 1, 2016-June 30, 2017). If taxes haven’t been filed or completed, then an estimate can be reported and updated later, without the prior worries of missing opportunities because taxes were filed later. This move done because many families don’t receive their tax information until later in January, which can result in students missing opportunities when the filing window opened January 1. Thanks, Obama.

IMPORTANT UPDATE #3: For the FAFSA that includes the 2017-2018 academic year, students will be able to report income information for the tax year 2 years prior, instead of the prior one. So, the 2017-2018 FAFSA will report information from the 2015 tax year, not 2016. This is also a permanent change.

  1. Not filing federal income tax returns. So before (and for the 2016-2017 FAFSA), the issue was not filing federal income tax returns early enough, such that the Department of Education could identify what aid students qualified for. With the changes planned for 2017-2018, the issue now becomes not filing federal income tax returns at all. Don’t give up free money. Besides, tax evasion is a felony.
  2. Searching only for scholarships. There are a number of financial aid opportunities other than scholarships that do not require repayment, including grants, work-study, and opportunities available once you enroll at the university. Make sure you understand what all of these are, where to find them, and how to be competitive for them.
  3. Not applying to every opportunity available. Students often overlook the smaller scholarships (e.g. $500 or $1,000) in favor of larger ones. However, these small amounts add up…quickly. They often have a smaller pool of competition as well, since less people consider them.
  4. Automatically accepting student loans. This should always be a last resort, after exhausting all avenues for financial aid. And if accepted, you should still be searching for more aid to repay them before graduation.
  5. Not understanding the requirements of accepted financial aid. Does the aid require a work commitment? Does it have a minimum GPA or credit hour requirement to maintain it? These are important to know in case you decide to drop a class, for example.
  6. Not applying for financial aid when you have balance. It’s easy to think that, because you’ve accepted student loans, that you don’t have to worry about anything financially for college. But those loans have to be repaid. Keep looking for aid until the amount you have to pay (or repay) for all four years is $0.
  7. Not having a generic essay. The number one reason students don’t apply to every scholarship possible? They don’t want to write another essay. In Prepped for Success I discussed what a generic essay was. Have at least 2 or 3 to make life easier for you.
  8. Not making yourself known in your department. Remember that scholarship I mentioned above? It’s easier to win those when your professor knows you…for the right reasons.
  9. Not asking for help. There are plenty of resources around you that can provide additional opportunities and assistance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s what faculty, department chairs, offices of student services, financial aid counselors, and more are there for.

Whether it’s $5 or $5,000, that’s $5 or $5,000 less YOU have to pay out of pocket. Stop making these costly mistakes and start preparing for academic AND financial success after college.

Dr. Nicki Washington is a computer science professor and author of “Prepped for Success: What Every Parent Should Know About the College Application Process” and “Stay Prepped: 10 Steps to Succeeding in College (and Enjoying the Experience).” She is a researcher and featured speaker on computer science education, diversity in computer science and STEM, and preparing for college.

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