10 Money-Smart Questions to Ask Your Financial Aid Adviser
70% of students use financial aid to pay for college. 100% of them must meet with a financial aid adviser. 98% of them have no idea what to do during this meeting.
Sure, I made up that last statistic. But you know what? I’m probably right.
Sadly, most college students don’t know much about financial aid. Unfortunately, neither do most parents.
I get it. The financial aid system is complicated. The jargon. The rules. The paperwork. No wonder students and families feel confused and overwhelmed.
Well, I don’t want you to feel that way. I want you to feel confident and empowered. I want you to get all the money you deserve for college and graduate with less debt. Let’s start working toward that goal together, okay?
In this post I list ten questions to ask your financial aid adviser. Some of these are questions people should ask, but don’t. Some of these are questions people don’t even know they should ask.
Look, there’s no reason to dread that meeting with your financial aid adviser. After reading this, you’ll be one money-smart cookie. (Sorry, there’s one of those bad puns I like.)
Okay, let’s get started.
#1. Does This School Participate in the Direct Loan Program?
This is one of the most important questions to ask your financial aid adviser. Trust me, I'm speaking from experience here. I’ve written about lessons I learned while piling up my own student debt. One of those lessons is always go to a college that participates in the Direct Loan Program.
These days, most U.S. colleges and universities participate in the Direct Loan Program; in fact, they have to participate if they want their students to get federal financial aid. But back when I was in grad school, participation in the Direct Loan Program was voluntary. Students could still get financial aid, but instead of coming through the school, it came from private banks instead.
My first year of grad school, my university didn't participate in the Direct Loan program. All my student loans that year technically came from a bank instead of the government. That meant I paid higher interest rates and fees than students at schools with the Direct Loan Program. As a result, those ended up being the most expensive loans I borrowed in my 10+ years in college.
Again, most colleges and universities now participate in the Direct Loan Program, but many community colleges do not. So if you’re thinking of going to community college before transferring to a university, you need to ask your financial aid adviser if the college participates in the Direct Loan Program. Otherwise, you could end up taking out very expensive private loans to help pay for your first few years of school.
#2: What Is the Average Debt Load for Students in My Major?
This is a great question to ask before you commit to a school, perhaps during a campus visit.
The truth is some majors, like those with a lot of lab fess, just cost more than others. But there's another reason you should ask this: a high debt load for students may signal a lack of institutional support for a particular major.
Institutional support means things like grants, scholarships and internships. Many schools have these for students in certain majors. For example, business programs often have scholarship and internship programs that are only available to business majors.
Students in programs without these kinds of resources have less access to financial aid. That means they may have to borrow more money to earn their degrees. It could also make it harder for them to get jobs after graduation because they have fewer academic awards and relevant job experience to put on their resume.
Definitely ask about scholarships and other forms of support for students in your major. If a school doesn’t have dedicated scholarships and internships for your major, you should go to a different college.
#3: Does This School Offer Any Financial Aid I Qualify For?
This is another of the important question to ask before you commit to a school. Most schools have their own grant and scholarship programs, often funded with money donated to the university. This is known as institutional aid and is one of the major types of financial aid.
Since institutional aid only goes to students on campus, these programs aren’t widely advertised off campus. Many students and families don’t even know they exist.
As mentioned, some grants and scholarships may only be open to students in certain majors. Others may only be open to juniors and seniors. One of the questions to ask your financial aid adviser is whether the school has any type of financial aid you might qualify for and how to apply.
Most of these programs will require you to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You'll probably have to fill out a separate application for financial aid offered through your school too. Unlike other forms of financial aid, you may also have to submit letters of recommendation with your application. If so, be sure to give people writing letters for you plenty of notice.
#4: How Does This School Calculate My EFC?
Oh abbreviations. One of the biggest reasons no one can make sense of the financial aid system.
EFC is the abbreviation for expected family contribution. This represents how much of your own money you're expected to contribute towards college. EFC is based on several factors, including household income, assets and size and is calculated from information on your FAFSA.
But some schools calculate their own EFC using information not included on the FAFSA. For example, the FAFSA doesn’t consider the value of your family’s home when calculating your EFC, but colleges that use their own EFC can include your home’s value. Unsurprisingly, the EFC calculated by the school may be very different than the one calculated from your FAFSA.
If a school uses its own EFC, you could end up getting much less financial aid. That means you’d have to pay a lot more out of pocket or borrow more to make up for the shortfall.
If the financial aid award letter you get from a school has a higher EFC than you expect, one of the questions to ask your financial aid adviser is how that school calculates EFC.
#5: Do You Front-Load Financial Aid?
Some schools may give a student a lot of financial aid in their first year, then give them less (or no) financial aid after that. This is referred to as front-loading aid and it can take different forms.
For instance, you may be offered a scholarship that will pay all your expenses the first year, but won’t pay anything after that. Or you may receive a lot of grants. Rather than spread the grants out over several years, a school will apply all of them during your first year.
Front-loading financial aid is a controversial practice.
Some say that front-loading aid allows students to attend a school they otherwise couldn’t afford. Once they're on campus, students can apply for grants and scholarships to use after their first year.
Others say front-loading aid is unethical. They believe it's a bait-and-switch tactic to recruit good students, then leave them scrambling to pay tuition after their first year.
If you get what seems to be a very generous financial aid offer from a school, be sure to ask your financial aid adviser, “Is this the amount of aid I can expect each year or has my financial aid been front-loaded?”
If your aid is front-loaded, make sure you understand how much school will cost after the aid runs out.
#6. Will You Match a Financial Aid Offer from Another School?
Many students and parents think financial aid offers are non-negotiable, but that isn't the case. If you’re a good student and get a better financial aid offer from a competing school, it doesn’t hurt to ask your financial aid adviser if that offer can be matched.
Just be sure the match is an equivalent offer. For example, suppose one school offers you $10,000 in scholarships and grants. You ask for a matching offer from another school and are told they'll offer you $10,000 in scholarships and loans.
These are not equivalent offers, even though the dollar amounts are the same. The first offer contains scholarships and grants, which don’t have to be repaid. The second offer contains loans, which do have to be repaid. When analyzing financial aid offers, be sure to look at the different kinds of money they contain.
When to ask for a matching financial aid offer
The best time to ask for a matching offer is in late winter or early spring when financial aid offers are first sent to students. Schools want to lock in commitments to attend as soon as possible. If you want to go to one school but have a better financial aid offer from another university, tell the school this. If they know you're ready to commit to going there, they may try to match the offer.
Keep in mind not all schools are able to match financial aid offers. It depends on several factors, including the amount of federal aid the school receives. Federal financial aid has strict limits and a school cannot offer you more than what is set by federal guidelines. But many schools have their own scholarship and grant programs, which gives them more flexibility in making financial aid offers.
Remember, you should ask the college if they match offers from other schools first. Don’t just present an offer from a competing school and demand the college match it. That approach won’t win you any favors.
#7. Is There More Financial Aid Available?
This is one of the most important questions to ask your financial aid adviser. As mentioned above, many schools have their own scholarship and grant programs. Not every student who is offered one of those scholarships or grants chooses to attend that school. So come fall semester, the school may end up with some unused aid money.
Some federal need based financial aid is administered by schools too. For example, the federal FSEOG program gives money to colleges and the colleges decide which students are awarded FSEOG grants. If a student who is eligible to receive this money chooses not to attend, there may be unused grant money available.
If you need more money for school, you should ask a financial aid adviser about unclaimed or unused grant, loan and scholarship money. The best time to do this is late spring or early summer. By then many students have finalized their choice of college so schools have a good idea of how many students will be enrolled and how much extra aid might be available.
#8. How Does Financial Aid Work During the Summer?
A lot of students take summer classes in order of finish their degree faster. If you plan to do this, you need to understand summer financial aid policies. For example, some federal work-study jobs aren’t funded during summer. If your work-study job doesn’t extend into the summer, you may have to pay for classes with loans instead.
If you take out loans to pay for summer classes, remember there's a cap on the amount you can borrow for certain kinds of loans. For instance, federal subsidized student loans have a total borrowing cap of $30,000. Depending on the price of tuition at your school, you could hit this borrowing cap before you graduate, especially if you rely solely on loans for pay for summer classes.
You should ask your financial aid adviser if your aid extends into the summer. If not, then ask if the school has any aid programs to help students who may not get (or get enough) federal financial aid for the summer term.
#9. Will I Have Enough Financial Aid if I Double Major?
Some students are happy to just get through one major, but my observation is that double majoring is becoming more popular. That usually means students have to stay in school a bit longer, which in turn means they need to make sure their financial aid will last them to the end.
There are time limits on how long you can receive most types of federal financial aid. For instance, you can only get federal PELL grants and federal subsidized student loans for 12 semesters, or roughly six years. State grants and private scholarships have time limits, too. If you’re planning to double major, make sure you can finish all your classes before your financial aid time limits are up.
You also need to make sure the aid you receive will cover all your classes. For example, suppose you're a biology major and receive a scholarship from the biology department. That scholarship may only cover the classes you need for the biology degree. If you double major in another field, like math, you might need a different form of financial aid to pay for the math classes.
If you plan to double major, you should first see an academic adviser to create a degree plan that includes all of the classes you need for both majors. Then you should see a financial aid adviser to make sure the plan allows you to finish school before you hit your financial aid time or money limits.
#10: What Do I Need to Do to Keep My Financial Aid?
This is another of the important questions to ask your financial aid adviser, but almost no one does.
The requirements for keeping your aid are listed in each award letter, but you should check with your financial aid adviser to ensure you understand the requirements for all your aid.
For example, to keep federal loans and grants, you must maintain a minimum GPA and complete a certain number of classes each semester. You can be enrolled half-time and still receive federal aid, but if you drop below half-time enrollment or your GPA goes below the minimum, you may lose your financial aid
Scholarships, on the other hand, usually require you to be enrolled full-time. Scholarships usually have higher GPA requirements than federal aid too. So if you have both scholarships and federal financial aid, you'll have several different GPA requirements to meet.
You may also get financial aid from the state you live in. If you get state financial aid, be sure you understand the requirements to keep it; they may be different than those for your federal aid.
So, there they are: 10 important but often overlooked questions to ask your financial aid adviser. This isn’t everything you need to know about financial aid, of course, but asking these questions will definitely put you at the head of the class.
Are you planning to use financial aid to help pay for college? Have any questions? Leave them in the comments and I’ll get back to you.