Mar 07, 2019 at 08:57 PM

Financial Aid Guide

What will college cost? How do I apply for scholarships
and qualify for merit aid?

Financial Aid 2-1

Financial aid is a complex topic, but it is the one part of the college process in which parents must be centrally involved or even take the lead. In 2016 there was a major change in the deadline for filing the federal form, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), that determines eligibility for federal grants and loans and is used by many colleges, including the University of California, to triage institutional support.

FAFSAIn the past, the FAFSA only became available on January 1st each year and generally must be filed by March 1st, although many colleges require it by February 1 or earlier for scholarship consideration. Because few families file their tax returns far in advance of April 15, the college admission cycle was not in sync with tax-filing deadlines. But starting Oct.1, 2016, the FAFSA for students starting college in fall 2017 can be completed using parents’ 2015 tax return.

This switch to earlier availability of the FAFSA and the use of what has been dubbed Prior-Prior Year tax returns should reduce that last-minute scramble, but it will also mean that families of many freshmen will use their 2015 tax return twice. This change will also push the qualifying period back a year, so tax data from spring of a student’s sophomore year in high school will determine scholarship eligibility for their freshman year in college.

College NavigatorBy federal mandate, every college must post a net-price calculator to allow prospective students to estimate their individual coast of attendance. The National Center for Educational Statistics has incorporated these tools in its profiles of schools on College Navigator. This website also profiles types of aid (federal, state, institutional) and amounts; it also allows students to see how many students graduated with each major and department, which provides some measure of how the school allocates its resources.


Merit aid is a more discretionary form of scholarship. To qualify for these sources of financing, which are not based on need, the applicant should be in the top 10-20th percentile of admitted students. FastWeb is one source for reliable information on college scholarships.

Money magazine identifies fifty colleges where at least 20% of students receive grants of $6,000 or more.

Kiplinger publishes rankings of Best Values in public and private colleges and universities, including information on average debt at graduation.

The College SolutionSan Diego writer and education blogger Lynn O’Shaughnessy has become the go-to information source on financial aid. She teaches online classes that are well worth the investment to understand basics of financial aid and how to avoid common pitfalls. She walks through the process of finding the schools that are the most generous with merit aid and meet the largest percentage of need with grants, not loans, in the highlighted post above.

DIY College RankingsI also recommend Michelle Kretzchmar, DIY education blogger, who also offers online classes that help parents identify which colleges are the most generous with merit aid and meet the largest percentage of need with grants, not loans. She provides many free lists that rank colleges by different measures for cost and financial aid, for example, which public universities cost the least.

Posted in Financial Aid.