Sunday, March 1, 2015

Financial Aid - Part I

“To teachers I'm just another child
To IRS I'm just another file…

Gonna cruise out of this city
Head down to the sea
Gonna shout out at the ocean
Hey it's me
And I feel like a number”

- Bob Seger, “Feel Like a Number”

In keeping with our theme of the last post, feeling as though you’re being reduced to a few short answers and test scores, I turn to Bob Seger and his take on this frustrating feeling.  Last post we focused on the admissions process and how we try and select students for our class and this time, “feeling like a number” refers to the financial aid process, the next step along this college selection journey. 

Talking about financial aid is timely, because in case you weren’t aware, we are coming up on a critically important deadline – March 2.  This is the priority filing date for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and also for the state of California’s Cal Grant Application.  If you and your family have not yet done so, please visit as soon as possible and complete the aid application.  In order to be eligible for any type of need-based financial aid you must complete this by the priority deadline.  As the name implies, it is free, and although it will take a little bit of time to complete, every family should complete it.  It is a really important first step toward helping a family figure out how to pay for college.

At USD, we are starting to send out admissions decisions this week, and will continue to do so for the next three weeks or so.  The excitement of receiving that big envelope is a special moment, but is often followed by the realization of how much it might cost to attend.  (For some words of encouragement for those who receive the small envelope with bad news, I would refer you to a previous post (

Financial aid is a very complex, highly regulated, and extremely misunderstood part of making the college choice.  It can often seem impersonal and inflexible.  And yet institutions try very hard to help every family through the process, and at USD, we take this responsibility very seriously.  Nevertheless, the process remains a mystery to most, and I hope I can provide a few insights here.

Completing the FAFSA, as mentioned earlier is the key first step.  Financial aid is largely determined by the federal formula (or methodology, as it’s called) that is driven by the FAFSA.  Through this formula, which takes into account family income, size of the family, the number of family members in college and a host of other data points, the federal government provides each family with what is called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).  This represents the amount of money that each family is going to be expected to contribute to their son or daughters education, regardless of where they attend.  The EFC is sent to all the institutions that a student has applied to by way of a code (USD’s code is 010395). 

Two things that can cause families to miss this deadline are waiting until they complete their taxes, and waiting to find out where they get accepted.  Please don’t wait for either one to happen!  If a family is filing their taxes later, they can estimate the information on the FAFSA and it can be verified later.  Also, don’t wait to hear from your schools.  You need to file the forms by the deadline and then send the results.  If you end up not being admitted to one of the schools you list on the form, nothing happens, but if you are late, you may not be considered for all the aid you are eligible for. 

After completing the FAFSA and having the results sent, there isn’t much for a family to do until after they are admitted to their list of schools.  Once admitted, the aid office will match the admitted student information with the imported FAFSA information and begin the process.  This matching process can sometimes be challenging, because the information on the admissions application (in particular, the Social Security number) needs to be matched against the information on the FAFSA.  If there isn’t a match, it may take some time for the institution to manually match the records together (here’s where Seger’s refrain kicks in, “I feel like a number….”.

Once those records are matched, the process of putting together a financial aid package begins.  At a high level, the process is a relatively simple one.  An institution takes the Expected Family Contribution (what the government has said the family should pay) and subtracts it from the total cost of attending that institution (this will be tuition, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, and living expenses).  The result is how much need a student has to attend that particular college or university.  Here’s where the process and results will vary greatly from school to school, and where the confusion for students and families begins. The variations are going to depend on (among other things) the resources of the institution, the need level of the family, and the size, quality, and other characteristics of the admitted student pool.

Since this is a complex, and institution-specific process, I’m going to break this discussion up into two parts.  In the next post, I’ll try and explain how this works at USD and why other schools will likely provide different amounts of aid to the same student.  I’ll also recommend some tips to consider as you compare different aid awards. 
In the meantime, please complete the FAFSA prior to March 2, and at least at this point, resist the urge to “Head down to the sea …shout out at the ocean…I feel like a number”.  Till next time


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