Financial Aid: Should You Apply?

About half of the families with whom we work do not qualify for need based financial aid.  We help them determine that definitively a year or so before their child leaves for college.  We advise this group NOT to complete the FAFSA or the CSS Profile during their student’s senior year.  These forms can take dozens of hours to complete, and some of them make your federal tax return look like a kindergarten math problem. 

This advice is counter to what most college admissions professionals and high school guidance counselors recommend.  “You should always apply for aid.  You may qualify.  You’ll never really know unless you do so,” they explain.  This advice is erroneous for two reasons:

1.  You should know if you’ll qualify for aid well before your child’s senior year.  If you don’t I believe you’re doing your child and your family a disservice.  Unless you can afford the full cost of the most expensive school in the country – $59,000 per year, then you should make certain you understand if you’ll qualify for aid before your son or daughter makes their first college visit.  If you cannot afford the price – with or without aid – your student should not visit, or even apply. 

2.  If you know you won’t get aid, then why complete the FAFSA at all?  Some colleges are now requiring you to do so if you want to qualify for merit scholarships, even if you are certain you will not qualify for need based aid.  Why do they make you do this?  The only answer I can come up with is that they want your demographic and financial data.  It will help them assess exactly which socioeconomic groups their students come from and how to best market to and recruit similar students in the future.  It may also give them valuable data which they can use to shift their recruitment efforts to attract a different caliber of student, or perhaps they will seek out financial contributions from wealthy parents.   Regardless of their motives, I suggest that you do not complete the forms.

As you can see, as long as you’ve done your homework, and you know you will not qualify for need based aid, it makes no sense to apply for it.  The key point here is to make certain you know which aid formulas each school uses.  Make sure you get an accurate depiction of your prospects for aid.  If you’re unclear consult a professional advisor.  Doing so will save you time, money, and make sure your data will be not be used to squeeze more money from your bank account!