Questions Every College Student Should Ask Their School's Financial Aid Office

Renee Layberry
May 4, 2021

There’s simply no getting around the fact that college costs money a lot of it. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. For one thing, the payoff for a college degree is substantial.    College graduates still out-earn people without degrees by over $30,000 a year. Put another way, if you were to invest your tuition dollars instead of going to college, your return would be somewhere between 3% and 7%. If you instead put that money into your college education, you’re looking at a 14% return.   Because college is such a large financial investment, you need to understand how best to finance it. That means understanding what financial aid is and then asking your financial aid office the right questions to help you make informed decisions.     We have in-depth guide on all things financial aid. Read this before you talk to your financial aid office!

What is financial aid?

Some people assume that college is only for the wealthy. That’s patently false. Regardless of your financial situation, you can find ways to pay for your education. That’s because financial aid exists.    Even if your or your family is financially comfortable but not rich you can get financial assistance. Depending on the kind you qualify for, financial aid can be used to pay tuition, school fees, living expenses, textbooks, and related costs.  

How to get financial aid

The first step to take is to fill out the FAFSA form. That’s the form the federal and state governments use to determine your financial aid package. Note that many schools also award institutional aid based on that form. Only when that form is completed and submitted can institutions tell you what kinds of awards you qualify for.   FAFSA deadlines vary by state and by college. Make sure you’re familiar with those dates. Most states require the form by the semester before you plan to start school, but some are earlier. Also note that the definition of the application may differ between schools: Is it the date the FAFSA form is processed, or the date the processed form is actually received by the college?   Photo by Firza Pratama
 

What types of financial aid exist?

Financial aid can take the form of loans, grants, scholarships, and/or work-study opportunities. Let’s briefly define each one, so you know exactly what you are talking about when you meet with your financial aid advisor and begin asking questions.  

Loans

If you qualify for federal loans, that means you’ll be lent money at a low interest rate for a specified period of time in which you can obtain your degree (that’s generally six years for a four-year degree).
  • Subsidized loans are need-based and only for undergraduates. The federal government pays the interest as long as you are enrolled at least half-time in school.
  • Unsubsidized loans are not need-based and can be used by undergraduate and graduate students. The federal government does not pay the interest while you are in school, but the interest rate is generally low and simply becomes part of the loan that you’ll pay back later.
  • PLUS loans are unsubsidized and available for graduate students as well as parents of undergraduate students. PLUS loans require a good credit score, and can be used to pay for expenses not covered by other financial aid packages.
  If your federal loan amount does not cover your college expenses, you can also apply for private loans from a loan company or bank. You’ll need to apply directly to that bank or lender. Private loans generally require a good credit score. Make sure you clearly read all the terms and conditions on a private loan to ensure that you can comply and that the interest rate is acceptable to you.  

Questions to ask about loans

  1. When will I receive my financial aid award?
  2. When will I need to decide what loans I will be accepting?
  3. If my award letter comes back different than I expected, how can I appeal it?
  4. Do you have recommendations for private lending options?
  5. When will funds be disbursed?
  Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters
 

Grants

You may be eligible for grants too. This is money that comes from state or federal governments and does not need to be paid back. They generally require you to meet certain conditions, such as enrolled hours or a specific GPA.    Grants tend to be need-based and some are earmarked for certain professions, like teachers.   You will automatically be considered for grants when you fill out the FAFSA form.   You may also be eligible for institutional grants. This money comes from the college itself and does not need to be paid back.  

Questions to ask about grants

  1. What institutional grants do you offer and am I eligible for any of them?
  2. Can you match an institutional grant offered by another school?
  3. Are any of the grants I receive renewable or are they frontloaded? (Frontloading means that the institution gives a lot of money to first year students, but decreases the amount after the first year.)
  4. How does the institution calculate Expected Family Contribution? (Note that EFC information is included in the FAFSA form, but some schools will consider things like the value of your family’s home and that can affect your eligibility.)
 

Scholarships

Scholarships are a great way to fund your education because you do not have to pay them back. In most cases, however, scholarships are awarded based on merit   either academic or in some extracurricular activity.   Scholarships can come from a variety of sources, including nonprofits and businesses. Unfortunately, there’s no one-stop place for finding all the scholarships that might be relevant to you, but you can search several different places, including in scholarship databases, federal and state agency websites, and in your school’s financial aid office.   Bonus >> A scholarship application checklist to help you win free money for college  

Questions to ask about scholarships

  1. What scholarship opportunities exist?
  2. What do I need to do to maintain my scholarship? Do I need to enroll in a specific number of credit hours and/or hold a particular GPA?
  3. Are my scholarships renewable?
  4. Are there scholarships specific to my intended major that I can apply for later?
  5. What majors have a lot of scholarship opportunities?
  6. Will my scholarships cover study abroad or other international study experiences?
  7. What happens if I take a year off?
  8. Can I use my scholarships to take summer classes?
  Photo by Christina at wocintechchat.com
 

Work-Study jobs

After you fill out your FAFSA application and receive your financial aid letter, you may find you’ve qualified for federal work-study jobs. If you get that opportunity, take it! Work-study positions let you make money and gain valuable skills.   Work-study positions are funded by the federal government and by the institution itself. When possible, jobs are in civic education or related to your course of study. Some are simple office work (like filing and answering phones), but others will allow you to do research, interact with prospective students, or work in the library.  

Questions to ask about work-study jobs

  1. How many work-study jobs are available?
  2. Will my work-study position last over the summer?
  3. Do I need to maintain a certain GPA?
 

What other questions should I be asking?

Many of the questions you should ask your financial aid office are more general and will allow you to get a feel for which school is best for you. Here is a list of additional questions you’ll want to ask before you pay.
  1. What is the net price for four years with all of the financial aid I’ve been awarded? (Note that the number you get is the number you should use to compare to other schools’ offers. You may find that a private school, after factoring in grants and scholarships, will be the same price as a state school.)
  2. Can you match aid that another school is offering me? (Be sure you get that offer in writing.)
  3. Can you offer in-state tuition to me as an out-of-state student?
  4. What is the retention rate for the college as a whole? (Schools with low retention rates are often predatory).
  5. What is the retention rate for first-year students? (Low first-year retention often signals institutional problems. Conversely, high first-year retention with low overall graduation rates suggests lack of academic support for upper-level students.)
  6. What is the average time to graduation for students in my major?
  7. How much debt does the average student at this school carry?
  8. What happens if I take a year off? How will that affect any of my aid?
  Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions throughout your college application process. You won’t get a chance to ask everything on your first tour, so get the name, phone number, and email address of a financial aid advisor. You’ll likely need several interactions to ask all of your questions.   Even after you’ve enrolled in college, plan to ask your financial aid office lots of questions. They are there to help make your financial journey easier so that you can focus on your academic career.