The Office of Financial Aid: 5 Things You Didn’t Know

Every college and university has its own Office of Financial Aid. Like the Admissions Committee, this office and its functioning may seem shrouded in mystery—one imagines a dour group of bureaucrats, locked in a room with bad coffee and stale donuts, making the all-important decision about how much, if any, financial aid you’ll get. It may surprise you, then, to find out that the Office of Financial Aid is made up of regular, often deeply empathetic, individuals working hard to make difficult decisions with a  limited budget. You can even get in touch with these people, ask them questions, and appeal your case! To dispel some of the aura of intimidation and mystery around the Office of Financial Aid, here are five surprising things you might not know about the office and financial aid workers.

1. You can get in touch, even before you are a student

Just because you have not yet joined the student body at a particular school, doesn’t mean you can’t avail yourself of the services of the financial aid office. If you are applying to a college or university and are simultaneously applying for financial aid from that school, you are well within your rights to get in touch with the Office of Financial Aid—that’s one of the many things they are there for!

Navigating the financial aid process can be tricky. The Office of Financial Aid is there to help make sure you get the aid offer that is right for you and your family, and that starts during the application process. Some schools have steps and requirements for their financial aid process beyond filing a FAFSA, and if that’s the case, you can certainly get in touch with them to make sure you have completed all of the necessary materials. 

In addition, while you shouldn’t by any means nag financial aid officers, if you have been accepted at the school in question but have not yet heard back about your aid offer after waiting a reasonable amount of time, it is okay to reach out to the Office of Financial Aid. As an accepted student, you will have your own financial aid officer assigned who should be familiar with your case, even if you are an international student. If the hold-up is on your end, they can let you know what information they are missing to make a decision, and if the hold-up is on their end, they can help you understand the process and know when to expect an answer. They may even be able to expedite their response if you are already seriously considering an offer from another school.

In the late spring or early summer, you will need to make a decision about where you will attend school, taking into consideration various offers of financial aid. At that point, it is certainly ok to reach out to your financial aid officer and ask for an update. However, you should not be asking for a decision in the winter or early spring or any time before you’ve received an admission decision—that’s still well within the usual turnaround time for award letters!

2. The process is more transparent than you think

While financial aid decisions may seem like a mysterious process done behind closed doors, you can access more information than you might think. Every school has their own philosophy and approach to awarding aid—usually that philosophy is spelled out right on their website. Whether they are a need-blind institution—meaning applicants for aid are judged on their merits, not their need—or a need-based institution—meaning those who most need aid are given priority—or somewhere in the middle, you can read up on your prospective school’s approach to awarding aid. In some cases, you can even find out in greater detail how your profile will be evaluated, what factors will subtract from your aid award, like the Expected family contribution (EFC), and what factors will increase your aid, like whether the school gives aid only for direct costs (those coming from the school, such as tuition and room and board) or for total costs (things like textbooks, travel and living expenses).

If you aren’t quite satisfied with what you can find online, as mentioned, you can… get in touch! Until you have been accepted, you won’t yet be assigned to a particular financial aid officer—but, depending on the size of the school and how much aid they give out, there will be at least some administrative presence in the Office of Financial Aid, and likely quite a few staffers whose role includes answering your emails or taking your calls. 

3.The Office of Financial Aid often provides net price calculators

Before you start calling and emailing the Office of Financial Aid with all of your questions, make sure you have done your own research. Google or navigate to your target school’s Financial Aid website, or Admissions homepage, and thoroughly read the information there. In addition to answering common questions about how and when to apply, when you can expect an answer, and other process questions, many schools have their own net price calculator. This incredibly handy online tool will help you get a rough idea of what you can expect to pay at that school once you’ve factored in aid. You’ll answer a series of questions about you and your family, and a number will pop out. 

Keep in mind that this is not exact, and the amount of aid you qualify for in reality may exceed or be less than that number. Still this is an incredibly helpful tool to help you think through your college choices. You may come across this while browsing your school’s office of financial aid web page (which you should do regardless!), or simply Google your school name and “net price calculator.” Not every school provides this tool, but for those that do, you should certainly take advantage!

4. Financial aid officers are people, too

It’s easy to forget that the people behind your financial aid decision are, well, people. The Office of Financial Aid is not composed of robots, or a computer program that your data is run through to spit out a number. An individual will look at your profile and advocate for you and it’s always easy to reach out to them. That’s right, advocate for YOU. Of course, they need to keep in mind the fiscal responsibility of and limited aid available from the school, each officer will have a set of applicants who they are responsible for pitching to the larger committee. Once you are an accepted student, you can get in touch with that financial aid officer and ask for amendments to the package. 
Yes, you can appeal your aid decision. If you believe there is some aspect of your aid application that was overlooked, that your EFC was overestimated for some reason, or if something has changed since you submitted your financial information, then appeal the decision. The financial aid officer familiar with your case will review all the information, including any updates, changes, or revisions, and help you and your family get the most suitable aid package. The same is true even once you’re already on campus—a sudden change in your family’s financial outlook is certainly worth bringing to the financial aid office’s attention.

5.You need to reapply each year

Many students don’t realize that the financial aid application process—and their relationship with the Office of Financial Aid—doesn’t end after they accept the school’s initial offer and start their freshmen year. You must reapply for financial aid each year that you attend school (and want or need aid). That means, each October when the FAFSA is released, get to work on it as early as possible, and make sure that you check in with the Office of Financial Aid and your financial aid officer in particular to make sure they have everything they need from you so that you don’t make any FAFSA mistakes that will affect Financial Aid. Keep them apprised of any major changes in your or your family’s financial situation. The relationship that begins after you are accepted to your school and assigned a financial aid officer will continue throughout your four years at that institution. Make sure that you are familiar with the resources and help available through the Office of Financial Aid at your school, and take advantage of them!

Applying for financial aid can seem like a daunting process when you first begin, but the Office of Financial Aid is a resource for you and your family as you go through this process. By doing adequate research—both on the federal aid process and on the requirements and aid philosophy of your particular school—and getting in touch with the Office of Financial Aid you will find that this is not such a difficult, complex, or mechanistic process. Those making the decisions about your aid are people, and in fact, they are on your side and want to help you!