College costs have become an enormous outlay for families, and the price tag seems to rise by larger amounts every year. According to the College Board, tuition and fees at private four-year colleges jumped 5.9 percent last year and rose 6.4 percent at public four-year colleges. Many families rely on financial aid to help them cover some or all of their higher education costs.
The New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants (NJSCPA) advises that there are several steps families can take to be sure they get the most aid possible.
Most families use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to apply for money they need. Typically, the form is not due until June, but many colleges that use this form have their own deadlines that fall earlier in the year. In order to ensure that your request is considered on a timely basis, apply early in the year, and definitely no later than your chosen schools’ own deadlines.
Get It Right
This may seem obvious. But to ensure fair consideration for your financial aid request, make certain that you read the directions on the form(s) carefully and enter all the information as requested. Any errors could cause delays or otherwise hinder the process. When finished, sign the form and keep a copy for your records.
Offer Up-To-Date Information
Schools often base their financial aid awards on a family’s most recent tax return. In this uncertain economy, however, that return-which covers last year’s income-may no longer reflect your current financial situation. If one parent has lost a job or you have suffered a similar economic hardship, write the college financial aid office to let them know where you currently stand. (Send this letter separate from the FAFSA form, which should be submitted on its own.)
The school may ask you to document the problem, so be prepared to do so. If you don’t tell the school about your current situation, it won’t take it into account in calculating aid.
Don’t Give Up
After you receive the details of the financial aid package the school is offering, you may find that it is not enough to cover your child’s total expenses. There’s no reason to give up hope. It’s a good idea for the student to contact the financial aid office and explain exactly what he or she needs and ask for additional aid.
As part of this conversation with the financial aid office, it’s okay to mention more generous offers you’ve received from other schools. The financial aid office may ask you to fax copies of these offers to them. After consideration, they may be able to offer additional aid if other candidates who were offered aid decide to go to school elsewhere. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the college will raise its offer, but it’s worth a try.
Consult Your CPA
Applying for financial aid can be a confusing and frustrating process, but remember that you don’t have to go it alone. Your local CPA can offer advice on college planning and financing as well as any other financial concerns facing your family.
Turn to him or her whenever you need expert advice on managing your money. If you don’t have a CPA, you can easily locate one online using the NJSCPA’s free, online Find-A-CPA service. Just go to www.findacpa.org, and in a few clicks you can locate a highly qualified professional who can assist you.
For more information on various personal financial matters, visit the NJSCPA’s public service website at www.MoneyMattersNJ.com. While visiting, you can subscribe to Your Money Matters, the NJSCPA’s free, monthly email newsletter to receive valuable personal financial planning advice throughout the year.
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