Try the grey stuff, it’s delicious…

Probably like many of you, I grew up watching Disney films. Perhaps, not like many of you, I remember that before the days of DVDs, streaming services and (dare I say it) VHS and Betamax tapes, the only way to see an older Disney movie was when the film was brought back into the theaters. Every couple of years, Disney would re-release a classic film so that a new generation could see it for themselves. There is nothing like seeing the original film on a large screen.

Well, luckily, Disney is doing it again with some of their princess movies in the run up to the Frozen 2 release. Right now, Beauty and the Beast is in theaters, and the film gives us today’s blog post title.

Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes!

The “grey stuff” has its place in the world of Financial Aid as well. Often there are situations in a family that just don’t fit within the “rules” established by the Federal government, and a financial aid administrator has to rely upon her Professional Judgment to make a decision about that particular case. In these cases, there is no easy decision, and each aid officer may make a different decision.

No place is this more true than in the case of Dependency Overrides. If you read my last blog entry, we discussed the differences between the standards for dependent and independent students. But sometimes situations fall into the grey.

Imagine a situation where a student lives with his grandparents, but has not legally been adopted by them and they do not have legal guardianship of him. Further imagine that the student is not in contact with his father, and his mother – who lives out of state in a residential substance abuse treatment program – has had a history of mental and/or physical abuse. In this situation while the “rules” would tell us that the student needs mother’s information, it is likely that a financial aid administrator would allow this student to be considered independent.

So how does something like this work if you are a student with an unusual circumstance? It all begins with filing your FAFSA. Even if you are unable to have your parent(s) complete their section of the form, you need to do your sections and when asked if your parents are able / willing to provide information, answer “no”. Your FAFSA will be processed (although it will be considered incomplete until you take the next steps).

You then need to send a letter requesting a dependency override to the college(s) you are considering attending. If you are applying to multiple colleges for admission, send the paperwork to each of them; only one of them will need to complete the override to allow your form to be processed, but the school you ultimately decide to attend will need to make this determination themselves.

What information should you send?

  1. If the college has a Dependency Override form, submit that. Note that many colleges do not have such a form, or do not have it featured on their web page. If you do see such a form (like this example from the University of Central Florida) then complete it and follow the instructions. If you don’t see a form on the college’s web page, then contact the financial aid office and ask if they have such a form. If not they will provide instructions on how to submit this.
  2. Write a letter of special circumstances. In almost every case, the financial aid office will want a letter from you providing information about your situation. This is not the time to withhold information, or be coy. You should provide as much information as possible in your own words as to why you are unable to rely upon parental support.
  3. Provide a letter documenting your circumstances from a third-party. Your case for appeal will be stronger if you can provide a letter from someone in a professional relationship with you. Examples include (but aren’t limited to): a member of the clergy, a therapist, a guidance officer, a lawyer, a faculty member. The letter should be on letterhead, signed and provide contact information for the submitter. It also needs to document the case you are presenting (for example, stating that this individual knows that there has been a history of abuse or neglect). Note that a letter from your relative, friend, roommate, or someone else in a personal relationship with you is usually not acceptable.
  4. Provide whatever additional back-up documentation you can, and the school requests. If the school asks for it, provide any other information you can supporting your request. This may include a copy of a lease, a letter from the person providing you housing, a copy of bill showing a different address from your parents, or any other documentation the school requires.

Note that Dependency Overrides are annual, so you will need to again establish your need for one in each year you are a student (or until you become independent for some other reason).

While this may sound complicated, every financial aid office provides a number of these overrides every year. Don’t let your relationship with your parents (or your lack of one) be a stumbling block to your qualifying for financial aid.

There is one condition, though, where a lack of parental “support” usually doesn’t qualify a student for a waiver, and that is a parent who is simply unwilling to complete the FAFSA. As I said in my earlier post, completing the FAFSA does not “obligate” a parent to pay for college; the FAFSA is simply a way to determine eligibility for financial aid. The Federal Government will not allow an override simply on the basis of unwillingness.

In the case where there is no mitigating situation, and a parent simply won’t cooperate, students do have one final option. If you are in this situation, you can submit your FAFSA without parental information but the only source of aid you will qualify for will be the Unsubsidized Direct Loan. This isn’t a terrible last option (it’s better than paying for college by credit card) but there are matters to consider when borrowing student loans (and we will get into that in a later blog entry).

So, now that you have tried some of the “grey stuff”, tell me — what questions do you have? What Disney movie is your favorite? And what memories do you have of seeing one in the theaters?

It all (in)depends…

There is a running joke in financial aid. When asked a complicated question, a well trained financial aid officer will answer “it depends”. That’s it; that’s the joke. Not that funny, huh? More of a truth. Often in financial aid, the complexity of each situation means that there is no easy answer and that each answer is context dependent.

It always depends…

The issue of dependency itself is one with complications. What I mean by this is defining who is (and is not) a dependent student. Dependent students have to have their parent(s) fill out their financial aid applications, and therefore have their financial aid eligibility impacted by their parent(s) income and assets.

For Federal Student Aid, there are a few “rules” that determine if the FAFSA requires parental information. Here is a graphic that shows these rules (but keep in mind, it depends; more about this later):

So, if you read the graphic above, you will see that the following groups of students are automatically independent (as long as you qualify for one of those, you are independent):

  1. Students 24 years of age or older.
  2. Students enrolled in graduate (post-undergraduate) programs.
  3. Students who are married or separated (but not divorced).
  4. Students who have children for whom they provide more than 1/2 of their support.
  5. Students who have dependents other than children who live with them and for whom they provide more than 1/2 of their support.
  6. Students who are orphans, in foster care, wards of the court, who have a legal guardian (other than their parent), OR who are unaccompanied youth or homeless (or at risk of homelessness).
  7. Students who are on active duty for the military.
  8. Students who are veterans of the US armed forces.

Note that nowhere above does it say anything about being self-sufficient. So, let’s say you are a 22 year old who never went to college and who has been living independently from your parents since you graduated high school — you would not qualify for independence; we would still need your parents’ information for the FAFSA.

Also you’ll notice that nowhere about does it say what to do if your parent(s) refuse to fill out the FAFSA. The assumption is that your parents will be willing to do so. Here is where a number of parents / students misunderstand a basic principle:

Filling out the FAFSA does NOT obligate a person to pay for college.

The wise author of this blog…

The FAFSA is not like a mortgage application where you have committed to repaying (or paying) for college; it is more like an application for benefits. With a FAFSA you are seeing what funds you might be able to qualify for, there is no “obligation” to then accept these funds, or in fact pay. That comes later.

So, let’s say your parents simply won’t fill out the FAFSA. Or you aren’t in a relationship with your parents, but you are under 24 and don’t otherwise qualify to be independent. What do you do then?

Check out my next entry on the blog to see what options you have!

Free Money (but it does take some work)!

Can anyone really go to college for free? Is such a thing even possible? We’ve all heard the story of students who have gotten a “free ride” at X, Y or Z college or university, but is that really the case? Can you get a free ride anywhere?

The scholarship search begins…

I’ve been reading Ben Kaplan’s How to go to college almost for free: the secrets of winning scholarship money (for those few of you who are not amazon fans, my apologies for the sales link). Ben does a fairly good job of describing the aid system, although most of the information is available for free on-line. What I find interesting about Ben’s story is how much money and how many different awards he received from other sources to attend school. Ben does a very good job of describing his scholarship discovery, targeting and application process in his book, and explains how others can benefit from his methods. Let me be very clear: Ben won many talent competitions and other scholarship awards and he invested a great deal of time in the process. But it paid off for him.

Can it pay off for you? Well, first of all realize that the last thing that a scholarship from another source will impact is your family’s contribution toward your college expenses. We will talk about this in another post later on the blog, but keep in mind that if you receive a scholarship or grant from another source, most colleges will start by reducing your unmet financial need, then they will reduce loan and work before they touch any grant or scholarship awards (although each institution may do something different).

But given this, any money you bring in from outside scholarship or grant programs can certainly help.

So when do you need to start the application process? NOW!!! I would advise that anyone who is interested in looking to other sources for scholarship or grant should be looking on-line now to see if there are any programs with which you match. You can do this for free by creating an account at FastWeb, as well as some other scholarship sites. By entering some basic biographical information, these search engines will try to match you with scholarship programs you may be able to apply for, and provide deadlines and application processes for them. NOW is absolutely the right time to do this. Many of these programs have early deadlines, so time is of the essence.

Now, will you be able to go to school for free? For most of you, even if you are awarded one, two, three or no scholarships from other sources, the answer to this question will be no. I will say that if you are from a low-income family, your Financial Aid Officer will do everything she can to make the cost of college affordable for you, even if that means no contribution from you or your parents, but the reality is that most of you will have to contribute something to make your dream of a college education a reality.

But even so, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try; how’s that for a double negative?

Good luck in your search process and look here for more updates!

Applying Yourself Part 4: College 101 – Where the Money I$

Most college courses have a number as part of the course title. The course number is a shortcut to telling you how complicated the course is; the higher the number, the more complicated. Courses with a 101 (or 1001) number are, therefore, the most basic.

So far we have stayed at the 101 level. Has the information been helpful? Are you ready to dive into the next level of information about financial aid?

Before we do, though, we need to finish our application series. There is one more type of financial aid application and that is the college or unversity’s financial aid (or scholarship) application.

Do you need money for college? Ask the college!

Many of you may not realize this, but colleges and universities are the largest source of grants and scholarships for undergraduate students in the United States. According to the College Board’s publication Trends in Student Aid, the more than 26% of the money available to students in total financial aid (including loans, grants and work awards) comes from colleges and universities. This compares to 15% from the Federal Pell Grant, and 6% (each) from State Grants and Veterans Benefits. Private scholarships provide only 7% of the total aid to students each year. Do the math and you will see that you need to think about colleges and universities as a source for financial aid.

So how do you apply for financial aid from colleges and universities? The answer, sadly, is “it depends”. But your friend moneyman is here to explain how to work with the system.

Some colleges use the FAFSA to determine their own institutional financial aid while some colleges use the College Board’s CSS Financial Aid Profile. If you have been following along (and if not, quick read the old posts), you have covered these colleges. But some others may have their own financial aid application forms.

For example, my current employer suggests that students complete an institutional scholarship application. While you can qualify for Federal or State financial aid without completing this form, there are many institutional grants and scholarships which rely upon this application (and if you do not complete the application, you will not qualify).

Some other colleges who do not use the CSS Profile may ask every student to complete a financial aid application form available for download at their institutional web site. In this case, the form often is used to match students to prospective scholarships (or to collect information in a free format which is then used to award institutional funds).

And still other colleges may need no application form from you at all other than your admissions application, but will use the information from your academic record to award you an institutional merit-based scholarship. In these cases while there is no formal “institutional financial aid application,” your admissions application serves this purpose.

So, in short, you need to ask your college or university if they have a financial aid application, and if they do, complete it.

So in summary you can see that a complete financial aid application includes four types of forms:

  • the FAFSA
  • the CSS Financial Aid Profile
  • your state’s financial aid application
  • your college’s financial aid application

Only be completing all of these applications will you have a completed financial aid application. Well… sort of.

I guess it’s time to talk about private (or outside) scholarships. Look for that in my next post.

Applying Yourself Part 3: The Revenge of the State

I know, I know, I love sequels. Be it Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or even Toy Story, once you get me hooked on a story, I am all in. The action gets even better as you dive deeper into the story.

While this may not be exactly the case when it comes to financial aid, it is true that your application process is definitely a 4-parter. Tonight we come to the next part of your financial aid process: the State application.

In Florida, which is where I am based, we have the Florida Financial Aid Application (FFAA).

Money in Florida – We have Some!

Florida’s largest financial aid program offered by the State is the Bright Futures program, but it is a merit-based program and is limited to students who meet the SAT, GPA and community service hours. For those who qualify, it can be a fantastic program — paying the full cost of tuition and fees at any state college or university in Florida, and a similar amount for students attending a private college. But if you don’t qualify, many students make the mistake of assuming that Bright Futures is the only program that Florida offers.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Florida offers 12 scholarship and grant programs and 1 work program and most of them are not based on GPA or SAT.

But the most important thing to note is that you have to apply for these programs using the FFAA. The application MUST be completed during the student’s senior year of high school and can be done online.

Lots of great information on the eligibility rules and requirements can be found on the Florida OSFA webpage. We’ll also spend some time in future posts talking about these programs in greater detail. But for now, trust Moneyman. Get your Florida Financial Aid Application done.

And if you don’t live in Florida, make sure to look at your state’s requirements for its financial aid programs. Each state does things a little differently (some even let you take your scholarship money out of state with you).

And no matter what you do, stay tuned for the sequel. One more chapter is coming and it is sure to be a moneymaker!

Applying Yourself Part 2!

So yesterday we talked about the FAFSA, the main Federal financial aid application that you need to compete annually, once for each student planning on applying for financial aid.

Today we are going to take a quick look at the second financial aid form many of you may need to complete, the CSS Financial Aid Profile.

It ain’t just the FAFSA!

The CSS Financial Aid Profile is an application form used by a number of private not-for-profit colleges as a supplement to the FAFSA. The information on the Profile (which is what I will call it for the rest of this post) is used to determine how much institutional financial aid (translation: grant or scholarship) will be awarded by the college that uses it to the student applying. That means that if your college wants you to complete the Profile, you should complete the Profile!

Unlike the FAFSA, there is a (small) cost to you to use the Profile. As of right now, the cost is $25 for the first college and $16 for each additional college you list. For first-time college applicants who come from families with lower-incomes, the College Board does offer fee waivers; simply fill out the CSS Profile online and you will be told if you qualify for a fee waiver.

Like the FAFSA, the Profile goes live October 1 for the following school year (so October 1, 2018 for the 2019-2020 year). Also like the FAFSA, you can list multiple colleges on your initial application (and that is recommended). Since there is a cost per college, though, you do want to make sure your college really wants the Profile. To confirm this, you should either visit your college’s financial aid web page or take a look at the list of participating colleges on the CSS Profile web page. Like the FAFSA as well, the Profile is entirely online so be prepared to answer questions using your web browser. As of now there is no mobile app for it.

In future posts we’ll talk more about why it is important to apply for financial aid from your college directly, but for now you should know that colleges and universities provide more money every year in grant and scholarship funds to students than the Federal government does, so completing the Profile is a “must do” if you plan on asking for every kind of financial aid for which you might qualify. Keep in mind that most public schools (both universities and community colleges) generally don’t use the Profile. We’ll talk more about what forms they use in our next post!

Applying Yourself

So how do you apply for financial aid? Maybe you’ve heard of this thing called the FAFSA or maybe you know something about some college scholarship application, but what’s the real deal? What do you really need to complete, and when should you complete them?

Moneyman is here to help you!

Don’t Worry, Keep Filing Forms!!

So when you apply for financial aid, there are several forms you might need to complete. Let’s review them one at a time! In today’s post we will tackle the FAFSA.

The first form you need to know is the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This application is a Federal application and is indeed free to use (never pay anyone to complete your FAFSA). The application needs to be completed every year you plan to be in school, and if you have other members of your family who plan to be in school, they need to complete a FAFSA each year as well. The application goes live on October 1 on the year prior to your school year (in other words, the 2019-20 FAFSA went live on October 1, 2018) and while you want to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible, as long as the school year is still is session (and you are attending) it is never too late to do the FAFSA.

To complete your FAFSA you will need to get an FSA ID (Federal Student Aid ID). The FSA ID is your electronic signature which you will use to sign the FAFSA. Both the student and (for dependent students) at least one parent will need to get their own FSA ID which they will use each year to sign the FAFSA. The FSA ID will also be used by students to sign other financial aid related forms and to sign into other webpages (some examples include student loan paperwork and financial aid history).

On the FAFSA you will list ALL of the colleges to which you are applying for admission (whether or not you have already been accepted). Since there is no cost for applying using the FAFSA, you should list any college you are considering. Each college has a specialized school code that they should list on their web page (or you can just look it up inside the FAFSA application itself).

You can complete the FAFSA by visiting the FAFSA webpage and completing the form online, or you can download the myStudentAid mobile app and complete the FAFSA on your mobile phone (available for both Apple ioS in the iTunes Store and for Android phones in Google Play).

So that explains the application for Federal Financial Aid. More to come soon about the other forms required for financial aid, including the CSS Profile and the Florida Financial Aid Application!