Financial Aid Options: Ask The Experts

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Meet the Experts

  • shanice-miller
    Shanice Miller

    Author of Debt Free College Grad.

  • victor-luckerson
    Victor Luckerson

    Reporter covering tech and business for Time.

  • elle-kaplan
    Elle Kaplan

    CEO and founding partner of LexION Capital Management, LLC.

  • jodi-okun
    Jodi Okun

    Founder of College Financial Aid Advisors and a Discover Student Loans Brand Ambassador.

  • jason-nowitzki
    Jason Nowitzki

    My College Planning Team and a Wealth Advisor with Highpoint Planning Partners.

  • betsy-mayotte
    Betsy Mayotte

    Director of Regulatory compliance for American Student Assistance.

Financial Aid Basics

As tuition prices keep rising, so does the stress of paying for college. These days, a part-time job over the summer just isn’t going to cut it, and let’s face it, while mom and dad may be able to help foot part of the bill, they can’t cover all of it.

We asked some of the most notable financial aid and college planning experts for their advice on how students can pay for their college education. We also researched financial aid resources for tips on how to maximize efforts to get financial aid. The tips that follow on scholarships, grants, student loans and ways parents can help (combined with a little creativity and ingenuity, planning and hard work) are sure to pay off when your final tuition bill arrives in your mailbox.

Many students don’t realize that one of the first steps to paying for college is choosing the right college. Colleges and universities are able to offer varying amounts of financial aid and finding schools that are able to offer large amounts of funding to their students is a definite bonus. One great resource in understanding the net cost of different colleges is the Federal Government’s College Navigator. Luckily, schools take the entire cost of attendance into account when looking at your financial aid eligibility so it is good to know what a school’s net cost (room and board, books, and extra fees) is when you are deciding on the school for you.

Knowing the net cost is just the first step and will help you to create a prioritized list of desired schools based on financial aid availability. You can use resources like College Data to sort schools by the amount of need based and merit based financial aid they award. Access College Data’s tool. If you know that you do not qualify for enough need based aid to pay your full tuition, you can apply for schools that offer merit based aid which is usually in the form of scholarships that you won’t have to repay.

As you are looking at your financial aid opportunities, we also caution you to be sure to look at starting salaries for whatever career field you want to which colleges to , be sure to look at the degree options for the careers you want to choose.


Scholarships are generally awarded for academic merit or for something you’ve accomplished, though there are need-based scholarships out there as well. The best benefit to scholarships is that they do not have to be repaid upon graduation.

Shanice Miller, author of Debt Free College Grad, has three keys to scholarship success.

  1. Find the colleges that want you. These are the colleges that you’re in the top 25% of in relation to average GPA and SAT scores. These are typically the colleges that will give you the most merit aid because they think you will be a good representative of their college and they want you there.
  2. Make smart decisions. Find out how much the college costs in relation to how much merit scholarships they’re providing you with. When you know the difference in the cost of college vs. how much scholarship you’ll get, you’ll know exactly how much extra money you will need to attend.
  3. Supplement the difference in No. 2 with private scholarships. Search for scholarships locally in your neighborhood at community organizations, foundations, schools, etc.

“Be persistent and keep applying for scholarships,” said Miller. “You have to invest the time to reap the rewards. Seek help if you’re confused, overwhelmed, or stumped as to what to do or how to fill out the scholarship application. I see too many students not applying because the whole process confuses them. When you have a guide to walk you through the process, it makes everything easier, faster and more likely to get done.”

Here are some scholarship resources you can check out:

Student Loans and Government Grants

There are two types of student loans: federal and private. Federal student loans do not have to be repaid while you’re in college, and repayment terms and interest rates are generally more flexible than private student loans.

The first step to getting Federal student loans is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. The FAFSA is used to determine eligibility for both Federal grants and Federal student loans.

Victor Luckerson of Time shares, “January is an ideal time to go ahead and get the FAFSA out of the way. Some schools and now seven states award aid money on a first-come, first-served basis until funds are depleted.”

Because awards are handed out on a first-come, first-serve basis, it is important to fill out the FAFSA as early as possible. FAFSA applications for 2015 become available January 1, 2015 and are accepted until September 19, 2015.

“It is always better to reduce college costs than to take out more in student loans, which is why students should research grants and scholarships to apply for,” said Elle Kaplan, CEO and founding partner of LexION Capital Management, LLC.

Students should carefully evaluate all loans offered to them to determine whether it is a smart idea. Look at things like interest rates and the loan’s terms and conditions. After all, you will have to repay the loans after you leave college.

“It’s almost always better to borrow less and instead lower your overall costs by living off-campus, being resourceful with where you get your text books, or working a part-time job than it is to borrow more money, especially in the form of high-interest private loans,” said Kaplan.

When it comes to student loans, Betsy Mayotte, director of regulatory compliance for American Student Assistance, cautions about the recent press around student loan forgiveness programs by saying, “students should never borrow in anticipation that they will qualify for [loan] forgiveness.”

Mayotte also recommends that students “consider their budget after they leave school while they are choosing their college.” Being able to pay back student loans is much more difficult if the student’s post-graduation starting salary is not enough to cover the student loan repayment costs along with other living and family expenses. Here are some online tools she suggests using to evaluate before deciding how much student loan debt to acquire.

If you do end up taking out a student loan, Jodi Okun, founder of College Financial Aid Advisors and a Discover Student Loans Brand Ambassador, recommends making payments while you are still in college. “Even a payment of $20 per month will benefit students and families by helping manage the total interest of the loan, establishing a routine for the student to take control of their loan after graduation, and helping to shave off up to two years of the life of the loan,” said Okun.

When it does come time to repay student loans, it’s important to organize your payments, especially if you have multiple federal and private student loans. Try creating a spreadsheet that outlines how much you owe for each and the monthly payment amount, and set up reminders for when each payment is due.

Grants are usually awarded on a needs-based basis and come from state governments, the federal government and colleges. Like scholarships, grants are free education money that does not have to be repaid upon graduation.

According to Jason Nowitzki from My College Planning Team, one of the biggest mistakes parents make is assuming that they make too much for their child to qualify for financial aid. “Don’t assume. Educate yourself on how the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is calculated and research strategies that will help lower it. If you need help, find a financial advisor that understands how to do this,” said Nowitzki.

Having too much savings in the student’s name can also have an impact on your EFC. Student assets are assessed at rate of 20% compared to the parent 5.65%.

Student Loan Resource Links:

How Parents Can Help

Sometimes as a parent, you can’t afford to foot the bill for your child’s education, and that’s OK. There are other ways you can help support them.

“The most important thing is to make sure your own financial health is taken care of before you think about funding your child’s education,” said Kaplan. “As soon as you’ve met your own personal financial priorities, then it’s time to begin saving for your children’s education, if you intend to. Remember, a student can subsidize [his or] her education, you cannot subsidize your retirement.”

A great resource for understanding your Expected Family Contribution is the College Board’s EFC Calculator. Schools use your family’s EFC to determine the amount of need based financial aid you qualify for and this calculator simplifies the details so you can understand what does and does not get counted in your EFC figure.

If you can’t help your child pay for college, the best thing you can do for them is to start teaching them about money at a young age.

“Even if a child is very young, you can work with them to start setting long-term savings goals to instill in them a healthy respect for finances. Open a savings account for them and have them deposit part of their allowance or part of their income from their first job,” said Kaplan.

Here are some organizations that offering savings accounts and resource sites about savings account options:

While many students pick a major based off an interest or passion, according to a Discover Student Loans survey, 70% of parents say job potential after college is as important or more than choice of major.

“Steering your child towards an in-demand career that has a good salary and career trajectory is important to consider as you prepare your student for college,” said Okun.

Even indecisiveness can cost a student thousands of dollars. It’s not uncommon for students to change majors or the college they attend when they realize it’s not the right fit for a variety of reasons. Changing majors is understandable but each switch can lead to a delay in graduation and more cost incurred.

“We stress that parents and students hire a professional academic counselor to help the student determine what they really want to do for a career and make sure those reasons are based on the student’s skills and talents,” said Nowitzki. “Some students will pick a college based on where friends are going or if a parent attended the school, not thinking if the school is truly a good fit for them. An unbiased academic counselor can sort through these issues and find the school that gives the student the highest probability of finishing in four years.”

While navigating the world of financial aid can be a little confusing and overwhelming at first, early planning and research can make the experience much easier, and will be worth it when it comes time to pay tuition.

For more financial aid resources, be sure to check out the 10 Commandments of Financial Aid, the Do I Know My Financial Aid Options quiz and the Schools With Great Financial Aid 2014list.