In honor of Olin’s upcoming financial aid deadline for new students (February 15), I’m rounding up some of the top concerns families share with us about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Although it’s normal to be apprehensive about the financial aid process, a better understanding of how it actually works (and how it doesn’t work) can go a long way towards helping families ease their fears, ask more effective questions, and make better long-term financial decisions. So go ahead, take a peek behind the curtain…
1. I’ve heard horror stories about how difficult and time-consuming the FAFSA is.
My mom tells me on a regular basis how thankful she is that “her FAFSA days are over.” It’s true: the FAFSA is a lengthy and not always intuitive form, and pretty much everyone agrees that making it simpler is in all of our best interests. That said, college is an important and expensive investment, and this isn’t a place where you’d want to cut too many corners. So while the process is a pain, you can see it as a good thing that the government wants to capture as complete and accurate a picture of your finances as possible. Plus, it has gotten a lot better! The FAFSA on the Web, which is by far the easiest and fastest way to complete the form, uses skip logic allowing you to bypass questions that don’t apply to you and helpful hints to assist you along the way. Lastly, there is so much free FAFSA help available. Web resources (like Federal Student Aid), your school counselor, free FAFSA days in your community, and college financial aid administrators (most of us are very friendly, I swear!) are all here to help. Do not pay someone to help you with the FAFSA. The F in FAFSA stands for “Free,” so be wary of anyone trying to convince you that it’s too complicated to complete on your own.
2. I don’t want to take out loans.
The FAFSA will let you know which federal loans (which are most often the best loan options out there) you qualify for, but it does not obligate you to take those loans. You have to complete additional paperwork to actually accept all or part of a loan, so there is no possibility that completing the FAFSA will automatically burden you with unwanted debt.
3. I’m scared that applying for financial aid will hurt my chances of being admitted.
It depends. Colleges are either “need-aware” (sometimes called “need-sensitive”), meaning they consider financial need when making admission decisions, or “need-blind,” meaning they do not consider financial need when making admission decisions. Every college has different institutional priorities and different resources with which to achieve them, which can help explain why they might be need-aware versus need-blind. If you are concerned about the potential impact of your financial need on your admission prospects, you should find out the specific policies of the schools you’re applying to. Olin is need-blind.
4. Our financial situation has changed since 2016, so my FAFSA won’t be accurate.
The short answer to this is don’t worry, do your FAFSA anyway, and talk to us. “Early FAFSA,” or the recent shift to using tax information from two years ago (as opposed to last year), is by and large positive because it allows people to file the FAFSA earlier. The vast majority of people’s finances don’t change from year to year, but if yours has, your FAFSA may not reflect your current financial reality. Maybe a parent has lost their job, there has been a separation or divorce, or a family is experiencing exorbitant medical expenses that aren’t covered by insurance. These things happen, and most colleges understand this. Contact the schools you’ve been admitted to and ask about their financial aid appeal process. Depending on the situation, it may or may not result in more aid, but there’s no harm in asking. Keep in mind that you should do this after you have received your initial financial aid award; otherwise there’s nothing to “appeal” yet. In the meantime, you can start by gathering documentation of the changed circumstances; the financial aid office will ask for it when the time comes.
5. The FAFSA isn’t fair.
We hear this a lot, especially from people who feel that their specific circumstances either weren’t considered or didn’t result in enough aid. I won’t pretend that the FAFSA is perfect (could a one-size-fits-all tool designed to distribute limited resources across a large population ever be?), but it is thoughtful, intentional, and consistent. This is where it helps to learn more about what actually goes into the formula. For dependent students, the FAFSA assesses the student’s and their parents’ income and assets. Generally speaking, debt and expenses are not considered. There are several protections built in (for basic living expenses, taxes in your state, education, retirement, emergencies, and more), some assets are not considered at all (like a primary home or small business), and only a portion of your remaining assets are actually looked at. Families are not asked to contribute everything they have to education, and the idea that families are “punished for saving” is not accurate.
Remember to submit your FAFSA to Olin by February 15 if you plan to apply for financial aid*. You can learn more about Olin’s generous financial aid here.
*Note: The FAFSA is not required for the Olin Tuition Scholarship. Olin does not require the CSS Profile.