Financial Aid Officers (aka, your new best friends)

There are two points during the year when the words “financial aid” can throw any student in a tizzy: early spring semester —  when the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is released and due to be filled out — and late summer, as school is about to start.

I have to admit, summer financial aid stress gets me every time. Spring is easy, especially after the first year filling it out. You just update your personal and financial information (and the personal information may stay the same year to year, such as address and school attended). Summer is a whole ‘nother ball game.

Summer is when the financial aid office at your college receives your eligibility information from the government (from your FAFSA application) about how much money you will get in aid from the government. From there, the school will try to fill your need. It doesn’t always cover all of your expenses, however. My first two years of college, my father had to apply for a supplement loan in his name from the government so that I could finish paying my bill (my financial aid package just didn’t quite cover what I needed to pay for tuition, fees, room and board). That second year, even after a supplemental scholarship, I ended up paying just under a hundred dollars out of pocket to complete my payment for the academic year.

This year, my third as an undergraduate, I have done things a little differently. As soon as I filled out my FAFSA, I received my Estimated Family Contribution (or EFC, the amount of money the government’s financial aid formula calculates that you and your parents can afford to pay) which had more than doubled from the previous year….My dad had picked up overtime, my mom worked more, and I worked three jobs (ending the year with just two). The FAFSA doesn’t take into account medical expenses the family has, or our car payments, so it just looked like my family had a lot of extra money to pay for school with. 

When I saw the EFC number (8000+) and I realized I wouldn’t be eligible for a Pell Grant as I had in recent years, I contacted the only person I knew in the Financial Aid Office at my school….she just so happened to be the Assistant Director of Financial Aid (as I didn’t find out until much later). She was very patient with me, reading and replying to my emails all summer, answering all of the little questions I had. I kept her updated on my family situation and in turn, she helped me to find more loan money through the university to cover what I had left to pay. 

As of right now, I am just waiting on a $4,000 scholarship check to make its way through the city’s postal service to my university, and I will be all paid up for the year (with a small amount left over that I expect to be paid out to me! yay!) There is a $50 late fee on my account now (since the check is paying my school bill that was due on August 17th), which another Financial Aid worker offered to wave since I couldn’t make the scholarship check get there any faster.

If it hadn’t been for the help my financial aid office provided me with (this year alone, they were immensely helpful!), I probably would have had to take time off of school or take out another costly private loan. 

Talking to the Financial Aid office at your school may make you nervous, but I promise it’s worth it! Here are a few tips on how to deal with Financial Aid officers and use them to get you the best outcome possible:

  • Call early! (and often): Calling early doesn’t mean early in the morning, although there may be less student/phone traffic at that time of day. As soon as you have a question or realize there might be even the slightest problem paying for school, call your financial aid office. They can set you up with an appointment with a financial counselor, work with you to find scholarships or loans, or answer any questions you may have (or direct you to who may know the answer). Calling often is important, too; if they say they’ll look into your case and call you in two days, and it’s been five, call back. Especially if you attend a large university. My school has over 12,000 undergraduates in attendance, and every single one of them has a file in the financial aid office that might be cluttering the desk of the assistant you talked to. Give a polite, quick check-in call to make sure you didn’t get buried at the bottom of their desk’s pile.
  • Be truthful: As embarrassing as it may be to admit that your financial situation has changed since submitting your FAFSA (such as you or a parent lost a job, or wracked up a lot of medical bills or credit card debt), the financial aid officers will look at your situation objectively and not judge. Their job is to make sure you have the resources you need to be able to afford (in some fashion) to attend school. Plus, if the truth is that something terrible happened to you and your family that leaves you in dire financial straits, the financial aid officers may sympathize with you and go the extra mile for you….remember, they’re human, too.
  • The 4 “W’s” for the record book: No, I don’t mean world records or sports stats. Keeping a notebook with records of who you talked to, what day and time, where they are located, and why you called will help you keep track of who gave you what information and what promises. This isn’t just a rule I have for financial aid and school matters; it helps a lot with utility companies and insurance companies.

Have you had a financial aid officer that went the extra mile for you? What is the toughest part for you about dealing with financial aid officers?

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