college application checklist

This week, the New York Times published an article titled, “Why Upperclassmen Lose Financial Aid.” The article gave several examples of students losing aid in the upper class years of college, and accused some colleges of luring students with generous packages in the first year that were not renewed in subsequent years.

At College Coach, our college finance experts have had experience at a variety of institutions. In our opinion, there may be a few bad actors in the higher education landscape, but the vast majority of colleges want to help you succeed academically and financially, and want to avoid even the perception of a bait and switch.

The requirements for aid renewal are usually spelled out on the college’s website or in the terms and conditions that accompany an award. When a grant or scholarship is reduced or canceled (or price goes up without a corresponding increase in aid), it can usually be explained by a policy statement that was presented at some point in the college finance process. When you reviewed the award, did you read and understand the policy? Did you know what questions to ask? Did you plan for all four years? The problem comes from a failure to ask—and answer—these questions. Here’s a list of things you should consider in order to avoid nasty surprises like coming up short financially after your first year:

  1. What are the GPA requirements for renewal, and are they realistic? Merit scholarships usually have a cumulative GPA requirement a student must meet in order for the award to be renewed. Once you have established what it is, then you have to take the next step and figure out the odds of your achieving it. Don’t assume that because you had a strong GPA in high school that it will be easy to achieve a high one in college.  Very simply put, college is harder than high school. Ask the college, “What percentage of students have this scholarship renewed each year?” As the New York Times article demonstrates, colleges can produce that kind of data easily. Also ask what the process is to have a merit award re-instated. Is this even possible, or is it gone forever once you’ve lost it? When you have the answers to these questions, you may find it affects your college decision. A $10,000 per year scholarship with a 3.0 GPA renewal requirement is probably a better bet than a $12,000 per year award one with a 3.8 renewal requirement.
  2. You have to make “satisfactory academic progress.” Colleges adhere to federal rules requiring that students make progress toward a degree in order to maintain eligibility for all forms of federal financial aid. The requirements to meet satisfactory progress are usually pretty low, but you should identify them and understand them. Most colleges also use the same standards for their institutional need-based funds.
  3. Will your financial need change? If you have need-based grants, scholarships, or work-study in your financial aid award, you’ll want to understand how likely it is that those will be renewed each year. Will your family’s financial situation be changing? Increases in your parents’ income, or an older sibling’s graduation from college, can negatively impact your need-based financial aid eligibility. If you and your parents anticipate there will be changes ahead, ask the financial aid office if they can provide an idea of how it might affect your award. It may still decrease, but at least you and your family will be prepared for it.
    On the flip side of this issue, what if your financial need is going up? Maybe your younger sibling will start school in two years, or your parents are facing a drop in their income. Ask the college how this will impact your award in the future. Some colleges have additional funding available, but others may not award any additional funds even though your need is higher. This is crucial information to have!
  4. How much will costs increase? It’s no secret that college costs go up every year.  Read the terms and conditions of the award to find out if the college might increase your aid when costs increase. Colleges that meet full demonstrated need are the schools most likely to do this.
    If they don’t mention tuition inflation anywhere, then ask about it. Ask what the cost increases have been in recent years, and ask if they can anticipate what they will be going forward.  Some colleges “freeze” tuition at your incoming rate. If you’re lucky enough to attend one of those schools, make sure to understand how long that freeze lasts (it’s usually only four years, not five). Learning about rising costs won’t necessarily prevent them from happening, but will allow you to plan accordingly.
  5. Yes, deadlines still matter. The truth of the matter is, colleges have limited funds to distribute, and they do so using a process that strives to treat applicants fairly and equitably. Deadlines are a component of that process. Colleges will be doing all they can to keep you apprised of what you need to do and when, but it’s still incumbent upon you to know when you need to reapply for aid each year. Follow the Financial Aid Office’s social media outlets, check out their website, and beat those deadlines!

You may have noticed that I over-used the word “ask” in this blog post, and with good reason. Planning for two or four years of college requires you to be an informed consumer, and that means asking questions. If you can’t find the answer you’re looking for in the literature accompanying an award or on the college’s website, pick up the phone and call the Financial Aid Office. They will be happy to make sure you have the information you need – it’s in everyone’s best interest that you plan well for your full educational program. Good luck!

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Written by Kathy Ruby
Kathy Ruby is a member of College Coach’s team of college finance experts. Before joining College Coach, Kathy was as a Senior Financial Aid Officer at St. Olaf College and Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.