by Shannon Vasconcelos, former financial aid officer at Tufts University
With college application season just wrapping up, many families’ thoughts are turning to financial aid. College Coach’s finance experts are flooded this time of year with some variation of the question, “Do I need to complete a FASFA if I’m not going to qualify for financial aid?” The short answer to that question is “no.” The FAFSA is a financial aid application, and no student is required to apply for financial aid. Believe me, colleges will be more than happy to admit your child without providing you any financial assistance. Still, there are many reasons why you may want to complete an aid application even if you don’t expect to qualify for need-based assistance:
- In my experience, families are not always the best judges of their own “neediness,” as objectively defined by colleges. I’ve spoken with parents with family incomes of $70,000 per year who were quite sure they wouldn’t qualify for aid (at many schools, they would qualify for huge amounts of assistance) and parents making $700,000 who expected extensive grant funding (unless they have 6 kids in college simultaneously, it’s not going to happen). There are families with moderate incomes living well within their means who feel very comfortable financially and higher income families who struggle to keep up with high expenses and feel “poor.” Aid eligibility is based upon objective financial criteria, however, not a family’s own determination, so regardless of how you feel about your family’s financial circumstances, applying for aid is the only way to know for sure if you’re eligible.
- You may also wish to have an aid application on file in case your family experiences a change in financial circumstances, such as a job loss. Some colleges will not consider applications for assistance submitted after their published deadlines, even if a family’s ability to pay for college changes significantly. Having a FAFSA on file leaves open the possibility of requesting reconsideration for funding due to a change in circumstances.
- The government requires students to complete a FAFSA if they wish to take advantage of any federal student loans. There are favorable non-need-based loans that students from even the wealthiest families will qualify for, so if you want your child to take on some of the responsibility for financing his or her own education, or if you want to consider federal borrowing options yourself, you will need to complete a FAFSA to access government college loans.
- Most colleges have two separate “pots” of money to provide to students: need-based aid and non-need-based aid (like academic and other types of recruitment scholarships). While a need-based aid application is generally not required to be considered for non-need-based scholarships, this rule of thumb does not apply at every college. Some colleges require a FAFSA in order to be considered for certain non-need-based scholarships. Check a college’s website or call their Admissions Office to find out if an aid application is required to apply for any non-need-based scholarships at that school to ensure that your child does not inadvertently leave money on the table.
- Finally, many families are hesitant to complete a FAFSA because they fear their aid application will hurt their child’s chance of admission at the college of his or her choice. Though this is a legitimate concern at some colleges, I’ve found this fear is often overblown. First of all, colleges can either practice a need-blind admissions policy, guaranteeing that your admission will not be affected by your family’s finances, or be need-aware, where there is at least a possibility that your family’s finances will enter the admissions equation (see our previous post, Need-Blind Admissions is Exactly What It Says It Is, to learn more). And even at need-aware schools, the vast majority of students tend to be admitted or denied without regard to their financial situation. It is usually only borderline students for whom the need for financial aid may negatively affect the chance of admission. Finally, simply applying for financial aid is often not enough to hurt admissions chances. At many schools, not only do you have to apply for aid for your admittance to be in any way endangered, but you actually have to qualify for need-based assistance. Therefore, students who apply for aid but do not qualify are in very little danger of losing a spot in the class at a given school simply because of an aid application.
As you can see, though it is certainly not a requirement for admission, there are a number of reasons why a family who doesn’t expect to qualify for need-based aid may still wish to complete a financial aid application. While perhaps a necessity for more moderate income families who couldn’t otherwise afford college, completion of the FAFSA (and any additional aid application requirements) for higher income households is a choice. Before forgoing FAFSA submission, a family should acknowledge what they may be gaining (time, privacy, and perhaps an admission advantage) and losing (the possibility of need-based or recruitment aid—now, or upon change of circumstance—as well as student loan eligibility) by not submitting an aid application. While every family certainly need not submit a FAFSA, I think every family should at least carefully consider the option. For more advice on other areas of the college application and financial aid process, work with one of our experts.