Let’s talk about applying for financial aid. Not the most exciting topic, but we promise it’ll be worth it in the end.
Let’s be honest. No parent or student is excited about applying for financial aid using the FAFSA and/or the CSS Profile. It’s not how anyone wants to spend their time. However, the truth is, if you apply for financial aid effectively you could save yourself (and your student) thousands of dollars on the cost of college. It’s a necessary evil — and one that could prove incredibly financially beneficial!
We have to at least throw our hat in the ring and go through this tough process that is applying for financial aid to minimize the cost of education for our students. First, let’s break down how the applications for financial aid work, then we’ll dive into the different applications you may encounter, and lastly, a way to make applying for financial aid a breeze.
How Do Financial Aid Applications Work?
So, let’s talk about how the financial aid application works, generally. In just about every college in the country (there are very, very few exceptions), if you want to apply for financial aid, you need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA. Every year (yes – every year they’re considering going to school) every student has to complete their FAFSA which is a list of many financial questions, to help estimate the Student Aid Index (SAI). The SAI is then used to determine how much financial aid your student requires to go to school at a particular institution. Every institution you send your FAFSA to will evaluate your need, and help you fill in the gaps with grants, merit-based scholarships, and even loans if there’s still some leftover. Some families notice their EFC is too high, but that’s a topic for a different day (don’t worry, we have tips to help you tackle that, too!).
Anyway, during the FAFSA your student will designate it to be sent to any college they’re considering attending if they’d like to be considered for financial aid. Although it’s important to have your student designate which schools to send their FAFSA to sooner for the most ideal amount of financial aid offering (first come, first serve), note that you can always get in touch with the financial aid office at the institution and they can access your student’s FAFSA information online. This will involve some security measures like sharing your student’s or your own social security number to verify they have the correct FAFSA, but just know, you can still apply for financial aid if your student changes their mind or their dream school accepts them later. The FAFSA is something that can be accessed by the financial aid offices themselves.
Learn more about the FAFSA and how to determine your family’s need-based aid eligibility: Understanding the Student Aid Index in FAFSA
Required Financial Aid Applications When applying for financial aid, an institution will fall into 1 of 3 categories for which methodology they follow: the federal methodology, the institutional methodology, or the consensus methodology. Each methodology means a different application process or at least number of applications needed. Let’s break each of these down to understand what the process is and how to know if the school you’re applying to requires additional applications.
The Federal Methodology (The FAFSA)
As I mentioned earlier, most schools will only require the FAFSA because they use what’s known as the federal methodology. If the institution your students plans to attend follows this methodology, then once you fill out the FAFSA, your job is done.
However, there are some schools that follow different methodologies: The consensus methodology (CM) or institutional methodology (IM) .
Learn more about the FAFSA application: FAFSA Changes 2023-24: What You Need To Know
The Consensus Methodology (The CSS Profile)
A school that follows the consensus methodology requires, in addition to the FAFSA, you to complete something called the CSS Profile.
Now, this is kind of like the FAFSA on steroids.
This is several 100 questions, a lot more labor intensive, and a lot more invasive. They are going to ask just about everything while applying for financial aid.
The colleges that require this form also have the opportunity to ask what are called supplemental questions at the end of the application. This means , if you apply to six schools that require the CSS Profile, you might have another 50-60 different questions per application depending on the particular colleges. But again, it’s just something that we need to get through. We have to get through this if we want to be considered for the specific college’s need-based financial aid discounts.
To find out if one of the institutions your child is interested in requires you to complete the CSS profile when applying for financial aid, check the CSS Profile Homepage for a complete list of participating schools and scholarships.
The Institutional Methodology (School-Specific Application)
Schools that follow the institutional methodology require an institutional financial aid application. This is a school-specific form for your student to complete on top of the FAFSA in order to apply for financial aid. Sometimes, this is in lieu of the CSS Profile. But sometimes it is in addition to the CSS Profile. So, there are cases for some colleges that you will have to complete and submit three (FAFSA + CSS Profile + Institution-specific application) different applications in order to be considered for need-based financial aid.
We know this sounds like a cumbersome process, but it is well worth it in the end. When you complete the application(s) correctly, this can mean attending college for a severely discounted rate or even free.
How to Easily Apply for Financial Aid Financial aid applications are not a streamlined process. Colleges do not make it easy on parents or students, and that’s intentional. At the end of the day, if a complex financial aid application process deters some families from applying for and receiving aid, colleges save money. Our job is to ensure that you get the most financial aid possible to minimize the cost of college, graduate debt free, and get a stellar education.
Parents and students may have to navigate different types of applications, deadlines, and poor communication from colleges and universities about expectations. It’s on us to jump through these hoops to get the most financial aid possible for college!
We can help to take care of a lot of this for you. We’re going to tell you:
We have to be aware that this information is not going to be communicated very well directly from the colleges! So, the onus is on us as families to make sure that we are checking the appropriate boxes at each of the colleges that we are applying to. Is applying for financial aid fun? No, but it’s something that we’ve got to get through and we can get through together.
And remember, we can live with making some mistakes on financial aid applications. But what we cannot do is miss deadlines. Deadlines are mission-critical in this process. If we want to be eligible for the maximum amount of financial aid that our family is entitled to, we have to be perfect with deadlines. We can help remind you of these pesky deadlines, too!
My College Money Report™ gives you answers to three critical things every family needs to know before entering the college funding maze. Request our fully customized report and demystify your student’s college financial aid outlook.