FinAid: Telling the Whole Story
by Jeannette Webb
Life has a way of throwing curve balls. These can be particularly dicey when they happen during the months leading up to college financial aid applications. A case in point is the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. If your insurance company has paid you for damages to your home, car, etc., all that cash sitting in your account will have to be reported and can completely skew your FAFSA or PROFILE information resulting in less financial aid.
Other families are also in hard-to-explain circumstances. We found ourselves in the middle of the finaid application process with complicated tax returns that had resulted from the farm crisis that took our farm, home, and side business.
Some families have extraordinary medical bills or are caring financially for an elderly grandparent or some other situation that doesn’t have a slot to explain on the forms used by colleges for calculating financial need.
The good news in all this mess is that college financial aid officers are human and are in the position they are in because they want to help your student realize their educational dreams. They understand that life happens and have some latitude to exercise professional judgment in a case-by-case basis. However, the burden of telling the whole story falls to the parent. Don’t expect them to ask. Here are some tips to maximize your chances of a better finaid package:
1. Fill out the FAFSA and/or PROFILE promptly. Don’t wait until you file your tax return because many colleges distribute money on a first-come, first-serve basis. Estimate your taxable income, then follow up with your actual tax return as soon as possible.
2. Write a detailed letter explaining the nuances of your situation. Paint a picture so they see clearly what you are dealing with both financially and emotionally. Sometimes you need to tell the back-story to explain present circumstances. Other times you need to highlight expenses that an outsider would not think about (such as many homeschool expenses). Some situations are so complicated that you need to explain what happened financially. Share how these financial changes have impacted your family, particularly the student in question. For example, let them know if your college-bound student has taken a job to help with family expenses or taken over running the household so another family member could hold down a job while you dig out of the mess.
3. Provide as much of a paper trail as possible to back up your claims.
4. Be respectful and professional. You do NOT want to appear adversarial in any way and you certainly don’t want to whine.
Avoid getting caught in a financial aid nightmare by taking the time and effort to explain the whole story to the financial aid officer.
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