The Free Money Mini-Series begins this week bringing light to the subject of grants and scholarships, your favorite money from the financial aid office since it does not need to be paid back like a loan. Like, Share and Subscribe!
Have you looked into getting admitted to a preferred school much earlier than standard admissions deadlines? Then you’re probably considering an “early decision” or “early action” where the student chooses to attend a specific college much earlier than standard admissions deadlines.
Know the difference:Early decision (ED) refers to a binding decision to attend a specific school. Students taking early decision commit to one specific school as early as the fall semester of senior year, foregoing admission to any other institution. Early Action (EA) is a non-binding admissions process where students are notified very early of their acceptance but may choose to attend a different school.
Early decision: How’s it paid for? Going forward with an early decision requires organization and a clear path to covering the balance. Traditionally, the biggest challenge associated with early decision was affordability, since the choice was made without comparing actual financial aid offers from other schools. Gaining early admission with the means to pay the bill outright regardless of financial aid and scholarships works for some, but not all families. If the financial aid offered with an early decision application is too low, families have the option to appeal the decision and ultimately reject if proven unaffordable. Going through early decision only to end up not attending is an avoidable stress through realistic college planning, so unless the school is an absolute “must attend” situation, it may not be worth applying this way. It’s expected that students only submit one early decision application to one school, but may also submit standard applications to other schools by agreeing to withdraw those applications if accepted for the early decision school. There is a wide gap from early admissions beginning in November to when standard admissions deposits are due in May, so be aware of deadlines to know when a final decision is required.
Early action: What are my options? Early action admissions allow students the benefit of immediately applying to several schools instead of just one. This allows for families to compare financial aid offers without being bound to just one institution. Early action has become much more common to help students zero in on their final college choice after recognizing all their best options. Early action does require a pro-active approach to make sure each school has all admissions and financial aid information available allowing for clear comparisons between offers.
Financial aid applications are early too: The FAFSA (and CSS Profile) has been available since October 1, 2016 for college students beginning their freshman year in Fall 2017. This is 3 months earlier than the traditional January 1st FAFSA date, allowing more time for schools to begin sorting through many financial aid requests and early admission applications. Since this is the first time FAFSA is being made available so early, most schools are still following regular deadlines like in March, April and May. But for families handling early admissions, this earlier date hopefully provides more breathing room to compare options.
Merit based vs need based funding: Remember the differences between college funding. Grants are need based financial aid awards provided by federal, state and school programs considering income and asset information on the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile. Merit based scholarships are awarded to students considering high test scores, grades, sports, community service and other student qualities and achievements. When making a final choice about early admissions, make sure the financial aid award letter accounts for both need based and merit based funding eligibility. You want a complete financial picture when comparing school options, which is why all your financial aid documentation needs to be filed as early as possible.
For the first time, the FAFSA will be available beginning October 1. This is a big move from the traditional January 1st date for FAFSA availability, and will change the timeline for financial aid processing with implications for admissions. If you’re planning college admissions in Fall 2017, it’s already time to get started!
Prior-Prior Year Taxes (PPY): A move that will help streamline the process is the use of Prior-Prior Year Taxes to complete family financial information on the FAFSA. The 2017-2018 FAFSA will require info from the 2015 year tax returns. Those returns have long since been completed by most families, and may be available for digital transfer from the IRS via their Data Retrieval Tool. This means the financial details of your tax return can automatically populate the FAFSA, saving you time from data entry. Also, using Prior-Prior Year taxes negates the need to make estimations on the FAFSA when tax returns were incomplete. In the past, when FAFSA filers were required to use only the Prior year tax returns, they were encouraged to file the FAFSA on January 1st, before their actual tax returns were completed. Now that tax returns from the Prior-Prior year are used, there’s no need to estimate.
Expect similar admissions deadlines: Most colleges are maintaining their same admissions deadlines. May 1 will still be the major deadline for enrollment decisions. Early Decisions will be the exception from school to school. The big impact early FAFSA makes is that there will be more time for schools to process new incoming financial information, and families can get a better idea of their financial aid eligibility earlier in the process.
Pay attention to institutional funding deadlines: Institutional funding is money reserved by the college and awarded based on their own internal criteria and methodology. Eligibility requirements and deadlines can vary from school to school. Make sure to identify any deadlines for institutional funding to stay ahead of the curve. The simplest way to achieve this is by making sure all financial aid forms are completed and submitted in advance of any deadlines.
Remember the CSS profile: The FAFSA obviously gets a lot of attention, but the CSS / Financial Aid Profile is also required for about 400 select colleges when applying for financial aid. It goes more in depth than the FAFSA and is also available beginning October 1.
Dealing with uncertainty on the state level: Many states provide need based grant programs to students with low income based on data provided on the FAFSA. While the federal FAFSA is available beginning October 1, not every state will have their grant budgets for the 2017-2018 years ready yet. Be aware of any financial aid awards relying on estimates for state based funding as they may be subject to change based on final state budget legislature.