Column: the financial aid beast


Danial Syed

Remember when the school board happened to find a bunch of money just lying around?

It sure was lucky…in this respect, all of you college-bound students should feel a bit envious. Because unless you have $240,000 under your sofa somewhere, you’ll need to battle the financial aid beast; and that’s a hard fight to win.

Can you win? Of course! If no one could, then colleges like Harvard and Princeton would be disproportionately filled with rich kids, right? Oh…wait a minute…

The point is, as long as you’re prepared, this monster can be mashed. There are two big financial aid forms you need to fill out: the CSS (college scholarship service) and the FAFSA (free application for Federal student aid). Note that “College Scholarship Service” doesn’t have “free” in its name…to send it, you have to pay the college board $9, plus +$16 for every college you apply to. Considering that the college board also charges you $11 per college to submit test scores, it’s best to keep your wallet prepared.

As long as you have your parents’ (or your own, if you’re not a dependent) most recent tax returns and w-2 forms on-hand, the FAFSA shouldn’t be much trouble. Other than a question or two about your checking account balance, your total cash on-hand, and your investements, each part of it should be pretty straightforward. Once it’s processed, the FAFSA spits out your parents’ expected family contribution (EFC). Say your college has a total cost of $60,000, and your EFC is $20,000. Your demonstrated financial need is thus $40,000 ($60,000 minus $20,000). Some colleges will meet 100% of that need, while others will pay some of it and expect you to take a loan for the rest. Make sure you fill out your FAFSA correctly, or you might wind up with an unfortunately high EFC!

The CSS gives your colleges a more specific measure of your EFC. It doesn’t just snatch away your hard-earned money, though…it’s hard. They ask a bajillion questions that are hard to answer without an accountant on-hand (I wish I had one…if you do, be grateful).

Of course, you absolutely need to check each of your colleges financial aid requirements. This is the MOST IMPORTANT THING. Colleges (as far as I’ve seen) are not open or straightforward about this at all. You need to go to their financial aid website, click about twenty links, hack into the mainframe (whatever that means) and jump rope for six hours before you know what your college wants from you. They pretty much all require the FAFSA, and most private schools want the CSS…but don’t trust generalizations. Some colleges have their own, independent financial aid forms that they want you to fill out.

As part of the CSS, you’ll have to submit scanned copies of your/your parents’ tax returns and W-2 forms through a program called IDOC. Some colleges, however, don’t let you do this…you’ll either have to email them as attachments or physically mail them in. Again, it depends on the college. Some schools will even want additional documents.

If you’re a current senior, and haven’t yet tackled the beast, HURRY UP! While plenty of schools don’t need everything until February 15th (and some won’t even ask for it before March), plenty of schools have a February 1st deadline. Colleges will still accept your financial aid applications after their deadlines, but then you’ll probably get your financial aid results late. If you’re currently a junior or underclassman, this stuff is still important. Above all, make sure your parents know about it. If they have no idea what to expect and don’t have their documents prepared (or worse, if one of them goes on a three-week long trip abroad a month before your deadline, which happened to me), the financial aid beast will be pretty hard to beat.

The FAFSA will be available January 1st of your senior year. The CSS will be available in October. Remember those dates, and be strong!