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3 Tips to Navigate a College Financial Aid Office

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Zachery Gries College Coach

Written by Zachery Grieson September 13th, 2022

I joined College Coach’s finance team after working in the financial aid office at my alma mater, Loras College. While at Loras, I helped develop and create models to award our merit scholarship dollars and our need based resources and assisted students and parents with financial aid applications. I also reviewed and decided on appeals and negotiations along with a committee, and provided loan counseling to students and families I have also been very active in state financial aid associations, most recently finishing as the chair of the professional development committee. I completed my master’s degree in Business and Analytics and have a Bachelor’s degree in public relations.
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by Zachary Gries, former financial aid officer at Loras College Navigating the financial aid process can be stressful, so we’re here to share some tips to help you understand how financial aid offices at colleges and universities can serve as a key resource throughout a student’s time in school. We’ll discuss the role and purpose of these offices, and how to navigate them, both virtually and in-person. What is the financial aid office and what do they do? The financial aid office does many things! The staff ensures that the college is in compliance with all federal and state regulations as they process applications for need-based aid. Other functions include: reviewing admitted students’ files to determine funding eligibility, managing the processes and systems that award merit scholarships, and awarding school-sponsored scholarships. Staff help students understand financing options and advocate for students and affordability. Financial aid offices strive to ensure that cost does not prohibit students from having valuable learning experiences. If students find themselves having trouble affording text books, taking summer classes, accepting an internship, studying abroad, or joining extra-curricular groups because of financial burdens, they should set up an appointment to talk with a financial aid staff member to discuss options. The financial aid office generally does not help manage billing and collection of payments to the college. If you are wondering, “How do I pay my bill?” or have a technical question related to the payment system, be sure you contact the university business office, bursar’s office, or student accounts office, depending on what is available at your institution. How do I interact with the financial aid office? Most colleges have a list of frequently asked questions on their financial aid websites to help students and families know where to go to get quick answers. That’s a good place to start, but if you’re hoping to ask more specific questions, take advantage of the new trend in aid offices: connecting directly with staff via online platforms. For example, chat functions on a college’s website may allow prospective families and students to communicate with staff immediately, a helpful option for quick questions. Through these same technologies, students can often schedule in-person or virtual meetings. If you’re hoping for some in-person interaction with a financial aid staff member, you’ll usually find the office in the same area as other administrative teams on campus. Financial aid staff are busy, so keep in mind that walking in without an appointment is more of an emergency measure and, if possible, other connection methods should be used to allow the staff ample time to prepare to help you. To make your meetings and interactions more productive, make sure you have a list of questions ready so that you get the answers you need. Who should I talk to in the financial aid office? Some offices use a “one-stop shop” model which means multiple offices have a single person trained across departments to help. If your college has this type of set-up, recognize that the one-stop shop teammate is a generalist and, while they can usually help with broad questions, they may not have the expertise to help with more specific needs. The bigger a college is, the more specialized the financial aid staff will be. This means that at a small school, you can likely get all questions answered by a generalist, who is able to help with everything. In these cases, a student worker or administrative assistant may refer you to a staff member with a particular level of expertise for more difficult questions or issues. Understand that the financial aid staff wants to help, so do not be afraid to build relationships with them. They are here for students and families, so communicate with them and respond to their emails. They can help if you are struggling.

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