With college costs rising at unprecedented rates, more and more students are turning to financial aid to help pay for their schooling. Unfortunately, the process of applying for aid can be a bit confusing and stressful. As such, it’s important to be prepared when you meet with your financial aid counselor at a prospective school. This will ensure that you ask the right questions and avoid unpleasant financial surprises once you begin your college career. To that end, here are the five questions you absolutely must ask your financial aid counselor before making any final decisions:
- Do you offer need-based or merit-based aid? This is one of the first questions you’ll want to ask your counselor. As the name suggests, need-based aid is awarded exclusively based on the assets and income of the student and his or her family. Merit-based aid, on the other hand, offers awards based on the student’s talents, interests, and academic achievements. Once you know what kind of aid your school offers, you’ll also want to find out what it takes to qualify for these awards.
- How much debt do students typically graduate with? You’ll definitely want to determine how much debt students have when they graduate. Another way to find this out is to ask about the total cost of school each year – including tuition and fees, books, room and board, travel, and personal expenses. The goal is to get a feel for the complete cost of your schooling, so you know what to expect. It’s also a good idea to ask about the percentage of students who graduate with debt. In general, a higher percentage of students who graduate with debt means a more expensive institution.
- Do you offer a tuition payment plan? Many colleges offer creative payment plans so you can cover the cost of your schooling in manageable installments throughout the year. If your school offers this option, make sure to ask if they charge you a fee for the extended program. Many do, and you’ll want to weigh the pros of longer payment terms against the cons of incurring interest charges.
- How does my aid change after the first year? Before you accept your financial aid and agree to attend a school, make sure you know what to expect all four years. Carefully review the award with your counselor and find out what stays the same each year, what could increase, and what could decrease. If you’ve been awarded a merit-based scholarship or grant, find out what’s required to keep it, such as maintaining your GPA.
- Is there any additional aid available? This is a critical question to ask, because it can open up a lot of doors. For example, there’s a good chance that your counselor offered aid to students who ultimately decided to attend different schools. In this case, he or she could potentially award you more money. Also, if the award you are offered isn’t enough, don’t be afraid to ask if the decision can be reconsidered. In many cases, your counselor may be able to qualify you for additional financial help.
The bottom line…
Though stressful, figuring out how to pay for college – whether it’s through financial aid, student loans, or a combination of the two – is an exciting challenge. Always remember that your financial aid counselor is your partner in this process, so don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for what you need. Get thorough answers to all of your questions and you’ll be prepared to begin your college career with confidence, knowing you’ve got paying for school covered.