How to Better Prepare Students to Navigate Financial Aid

At Dell Scholars, we are fortunate to partner with college readiness programs who are helping their students redefine what is possible for the future – starting with a college education. Our advisors begin working with these students as they prepare to graduate from high school and transition to college, and we continue working with them until they leave college with a degree in hand.

Over the years, our advisors have seen the common struggles our students face once they are in college. In a new blog series, we’ll be sharing a few ideas and takeaways for college readiness programs based on major trends we have seen impacting the college experience of our Dell Scholars. Together, we can help students build an even stronger foundation for success before they arrive on campus.

When college is in the plans, there’s often one question top of mind for graduating high school students and their families: how are we going to pay for it all?

It’s a deceptively simple question, and one that often packs a punch. The cost of tuition and fees can feel insurmountable if a student is unaware of the financial aid that could be available to them. What seems like a transaction can become a highly emotional decision that can impact the whole family.

Organizations that support students through this process play an invaluable role in educating students and families about the resources available and steps to take, all while providing a support system that can help make college a reality.

Don’t leave free money on the table. FAFSA comes first!

For every student with financial need, considering how to pay for college should begin with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). National advocacy efforts have focused on getting students to complete this critical first step, which is a key indicator towards college enrollment and even college success. Schools and organizations across the country are promoting FAFSA completion among high schoolers, even hosting contests awarding those who have filed, while states including Texas and Louisiana have made FAFSA completion a requirement for high school graduation.

There is still progress to be made. One in seven students eligible for financial aid will enroll in college without completing the FAFSA. For others, the sticker price of tuition and fees will lead them to pass on pursuing college altogether, unaware of the funding that could have been available if they had applied for federal aid. Additionally, students who don’t complete FAFSA in a timely manner may miss out on first-come, first-served institutional aid.

Continue to encourage and incentivize your students to apply for federal aid – the sooner, the better.

Financial aid applications are submitted. Now what?

Filling out the FAFSA is an important milestone on the road to college, and after compiling a mountain of complicated tax and financial documents, it can feel like a major victory. The problem is, many students don’t realize they must still take action to turn that completed application into dollars and cents. Filling out the FAFSA is just step one.

Next steps can look different for every student, based on which college they are attending or if their application is pulled for verification, a process which requires them to verify their financial details. But walking students through these different paths can help prepare them to watch for updates and take necessary action to receive their financial aid.

Each year, more than one-third of FAFSA applicants are selected for verification. The process can be intimidating, so daunting that many students experience “verification melt” and ultimately fail to enroll. But the fact is, verification is a manageable process that most students navigate successfully every year. There’s more we can do to educate students before they are selected to reduce stress levels and offer practical guidance on how to navigate the process. Here are a few tips on solving for common verification roadblocks.

Students should be familiar with their college’s financial aid resources. Encourage them to log into their financial aid portal and understand where notifications will be received, how to formally accept or decline financial aid options, and how to contact the financial aid office. Some students feel intimidated reaching out to their college’s financial aid office, so provide reassurance that it’s okay to have questions!

Financial Aid 101

FAFSA, SAR, and EFC are just the beginning of the acronyms and jargon that students encounter when applying for college funding. The terminology of financial aid can feel like a foreign language, further complicating an already daunting process. But with a little coaching and a few vocabulary lessons, we can prepare students to navigate financial aid without breaking a sweat.

As a starting point, the Office of Federal Student Aid publishes a glossary of key terms and phrases that can serve as a helpful reference. From subsidized versus unsubsidized loans, to loan forgiveness and promissory notes, this terminology is fundamental as students prepare to review and compare award letters, navigate loan options, and make well-informed decisions for their financial futures. Other helpful resources include the Financial Aid Award Letter Comparison Tool and a calculator for comparing aid options.

Don’t forget about mom and dad! Upwards of one-third of today’s college students are the first in their family to attend college and may be unfamiliar with the process. Applying for financial aid requires them to share often closely guarded information, from W2s to tax documents. By involving parents in the process, we have the opportunity to address their concerns directly and build trust in working toward a shared goal.

Providing a support system

Beyond FAFSA completion, students will advance through critical stages in the financial aid journey before reaching high school graduation, while they are still enrolled in a college readiness program. Program advisors can serve as trusted mentors for students who may be navigating this process on their own or are otherwise in need of support.

Consider working with students to review their student aid report (SAR) once received. The first page will indicate if they have been selected for verification, a flag that may otherwise be overlooked or difficult to interpret. Whether guiding students step-by-step or directing them to appropriate resources, this additional support can make all the difference for a student who is unsure of where to turn, or in need of encouragement that they’re on the right track.

When it comes to paying for college, too many students are leaving money on the table or struggling with financial anxieties that could be avoided. Organizations that support students’ college readiness can help students ease the burden of navigating financial aid, and in the process, help put a college education within reach.