Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Helping Parents Understand Financial Aid Offers

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Last week, we talked about the challenge of working with a student when a college has turned them down.  This can be a difficult conversation to have, to be sure…

…but it’s nothing compared to talking about financial aid offers to the family of a student who’s been admitted.  Everyone is so delighted with the news from the admissions office, they don’t always pay full attention to the news from the financial aid office.  Here’s how you can help them make a college choice that is both academically and fiscally sound.

No two award letters are the same.  Financial aid recipients  will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) from every college offering them money.  While many of the same terms are used by colleges, some terms are different—and on top of that, every letter is designed differently, making comparison of offers a pretty hard thing to do.

You solve this with a legal pad or spreadsheet.  Create four rows (“Grants”, “Work Study”, “Loan”, “Other”) and one column for each college that sent an SAR.  Fill the information in one square at a time, and suddenly, you’re comparing apples to apples.

Terms can be confusing.  There’s still room for misunderstanding once the kinds of aid have been sorted, especially when it comes to loans.  Subsidized loans may not sound as appealing as unsubsidized loans to some parents, while others may try to use outdated terms from their days as a college student.
You solve this with a neutral reference parents can go to time and time again.  is the place to begin to make sense of the terms; turn parents to this resource, and you’ll find they can begin to teach themselves. 

Parents don’t know what financial aid officers do.  It’s common place for school counselors to call college admission and financial aid officers, but that’s not the case for parents.  Many families see their finances as a very private matter, so it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t want to talk about them with a stranger who has to adhere to a set of rigid government regulations.

You solve this by telling them financial aid officers are caring professionals.  Because they take their job seriously, financial officers have to keep a family’s financial matters confidential.  Since they want to bring every admitted student to campus, they’ll gladly answer a family’s questions, hear about financial circumstances that couldn’t be explained on the FAFSA, and use their professional judgment to meet a family’s need as much as they possibly can. You know the parents, and you know the financial aid officer; do everything you can to give each one a cordial introduction to the other.

The dream college may still seem out of reach.  Some parents encourage their children to apply to a dream college, never dreaming they’d actually get admitted, while others believe in their child’s chances, and simply say “We’ll figure out how to pay for it”—but now need some help coming up with that solution.

You solve this by going very slowly.  It takes a lot for a parent to come to you with this dilemma, so give them plenty of options, including sources of aid, contacts at the college, and transfer options that save money and still lead to a degree from a first choice school.  They may need help asking the right questions or finding the right words to talk to their child, but they’ve done the right thing by asking for help.  Give them clear options and a chance to ask more questions, and you’ll help them build the best possible plan. 

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