While the “fear of financial aid forms” is not likely to surpass the top-ranked fear of public speaking, most families would agree that completing the forms is typically approached with dread and anxiety.
Much of this dread is based on secondhand stories and myths about the financial aid process.
Here are some suggestions to debunk these myths:
• It’s not nearly as time-consuming as feared. Truthfully, if you have your paperwork handy, it is not an involved process. Besides winning the lottery, it’s probably one of the fastest and easiest ways to receive free money, if you qualify.
• You don’t have to be a straight-A student to receive aid. Strong grades and stronger test scores can’t hurt. But families are wrong to assume their children won’t receive merit aid, need-based aid or scholarship dollars if they are not in the top 1 percent of their class.
Most federal student aid programs are not based on a student’s grades. Families should make sure the college list is balanced with schools that can be classified as reach, target and safety, based on grades and test scores. The safety schools will be the ones most likely to offer money. Those schools want you perhaps more than you want them, and they will sweeten their offer with a financial incentive.
• You don’t have to be a minority to receive scholarships. There is no question that colleges are invested in diversifying their incoming freshman class, and high-performing minority students often find themselves with a variety of exciting opportunities. Some scholarships target minority students, other scholarships are exclusively for left-handed students or children of employees of a company. Federal student aid programs are definitely not limited to minority students.
• Don’t pay any scholarship service to find opportunities. Billions of dollars of financial aid doesn’t go unclaimed each year. These are false claims by for-profit scholarship search companies that are trying to reel in scholarship-seeking families.
These fee-based scholarship services try to convince families that they are the only ones with the key to unlock these billions of dollars of unused aid. There are several credible sites where you can conduct a free scholarship search: www.fastweb.com, www.finaid.org, www.scholarships.com and www.meritaid.com.
• If I need money, schools will fill the entire gap between what I think I can afford and the total cost. Don’t we wish it were so! Fred Amrein of College Affordability (www.collegeaffordability.com) says only 1 percent to 2 percent of colleges in the United States will meet full demonstrated need. And when colleges do meet 100 percent of need, it is not all “free money.” The aid packages typically include a combination of grants, loans and a work-study option. Most colleges participate in “gapping,” which means their aid packages don’t equal the difference between the Cost of Attendance (COA) and the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.