How to Help Your Students Find Financial Aid

It’s important to guide your students through the process of finding a college or university that has the majors they want and is a good fit for them in terms of location, size, and culture. But even once they’ve found the right school, finding a way to pay for it can pose a major obstacle for many high school seniors and their families. Some students may not even consider applying to college, if they’re not confident they can secure financial aid.

One of a college counselor’s most important jobs is sharing support and resources with their students to explain the kind of financial aid options that are available, and helping them apply for scholarships and loans. Here are a few tips from our counseling experts on how to guide your students through this complicated process.

Designate a financial aid “expert” on your counseling staff

Many schools have multiple counselors all dedicated to college search and application, and each of these counselors have specific areas of expertise. If you have multiple college counselors on your staff, designate one as the financial aid expert, so students have a single, go-to contact person for all their questions. This counselor should be very familiar with how to fill out the FAFSA, the distinctions between merit-based and need-based aid, and how to find and apply for additional scholarships.

Of course, other counselors on staff should be able to provide some guidance on these topics as well–but by making it one counselor’s specific area of expertise, you can be sure important information won’t fall through the cracks as the school year gets busier.

Financial aid experts will attend FAFSA workshops, reputable seminars on paying for college, and state-based financial aid organization workshops. One of your best sources for acquiring authentic financial aid information is your state-sponsored student financial aid organization. College representatives in your own backyard are another great, free resource. These professionals are invaluable for their expertise and willingness to help your students with the FAFSA or to present financial aid information to parents at evening programming.

Get an early start on FAFSA programming

A huge proportion of high school seniors don’t apply for financial aid–or even to college at all–because they’re not sure how to fill out the FAFSA and don’t know where to turn for help. Since filling out the FAFSA requires a significant amount of parental involvement, it is vitally important to ensure that you start guiding your students and their families through the process as early as possible.

The FAFSA opens October 1, meaning that parents should use their prior-prior year’s taxes, two years before their students’ freshman year. Plan an evening FAFSA event for the fall semester, and invite students and their families to attend to get more information and ask questions. Find a contact at the local community college or with your state financial aid agency, and ask a representative to come to the school to help parents fill out their paperwork.

Encourage your students to apply to a financial safety school

Students should aim for their dream school and do what they can to secure admission and financial aid. That said, the perfect-fit school for them academically may not be affordable, and it’s important to set realistic expectations so they’re not blindsided when they see the cost of tuition. Explain to them that many of the most selective colleges in the country also offer some of the most generous financial aid packages–but also encourage them to include one or two financial “safety” schools on their list. These should be schools that they like and would want to attend, but are also definitely affordable.

Offer extra support to first-generation students and oldest children

If parents have filled out the FAFSA in the past, they likely will remember the process and need less support in helping their student find financial aid. But for first-generation students or students without older siblings, their parents may never have worked with the FAFSA or searched for scholarships before. They may not even know that the FAFSA exists. Make sure you know who these students are, and be prepared to offer additional explanation or support if they need it. If a family doesn’t have a computer or reliable Internet access at home, offer an evening family FAFSA event in the school computer lab.

Additionally, there are many scholarships specifically designated for first-generation college students. Search for these scholarships and include them in the resources you share with students.

Promote schools that promise to meet 100% of need

In recognition of the rising costs of college (and every other aspect of life), some schools offer no-loan financial aid policies to reduce students’ debt loads. The financial aid packages from these schools typically consist of grants, scholarships, and work study, and pledge to cover each family’s demonstrated financial need (the difference between the cost of attendance and the expected family contribution).

Make sure your students understand, however, that they might still have to pay some money to attend these schools. The expected family contribution (EFC) is calculated from the FAFSA using a combination of a federal formula and the specific institution’s financial aid policies. These EFCs often do not exactly align with a family’s true disposable income. 

That said, students should certainly be aware of the institutions that pledge to meet their need, as they will still likely be cheaper than many other college options. The below list was published by US News in 2021:

  • Amherst College (MA)
  • Bowdoin College (ME)
  • Brown University (RI)
  • Columbia University (NY)
  • Davidson College (NC)
  • Harvard University (MA)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Pomona College (CA)
  • Princeton University (NJ)
  • Stanford University (CA)
  • Swarthmore College (PA)
  • University of Chicago (IL)
  • University of Michigan–Ann Arbor
  • University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill
  • Washington and Lee University (VA)

A robust college application platform is another vital way to ensure your students are getting the financial aid support they need, when they need it. Learn more about the extensive financial aid and other application resources built into Transeo College