How to Prepare for Financial Aid as a High School Freshman
During my tenure as a financial aid officer at MIT, Babson College, and other schools, I read thousands of financial aid applications and talked to hundreds of parents about how they could cover their share of the costs of their children’s educations. I learned very quickly that the earlier a family began to think about how they would pay for their children’s education, the more likely they would be able to do so without too much financial stress.
When you get right down to it, there are three ways students can secure funds to reduce the costs of their undergraduate educations. First, there is need-based financial aid: the money that colleges and the federal and state government provide to students after some kind of analysis of their family’s ability to pay for college. Second, there are “outside scholarships”: money that the student can compete for and—if they win—bring with them to any college they choose to attend. And third, there are scholarships awarded by the colleges themselves.
You can begin to strategize about need-based financial aid at any time, and should have a plan in place by the middle of the student’s freshman year in high school, at which point parents should have a sense of whether or not need-based financial aid is a realistic possibility for them. Families that will have to liquidate assets to pay for some of their children’s educations should learn about the concept of “base year”: the idea that parental incomes are relatively constant from year-to-year, and that colleges can use income information from the tax year that closed prior to the student’s enrollment to estimate the resources the family will have available to them during the academic year. Families liquidating assets should do so before the base year for freshman year of college begins to minimize financial aid impacts.
Families can also develop a strategy to increase the likelihood that their children will win outside scholarships through advance preparation. Instead of waiting to find scholarships until their senior year of high school, they should plan ahead. Students should conduct their scholarship searches as early as freshman year, identifying scholarships that they could qualify for and win in the future. Then spend the remaining time until applications are due making sure they are a perfect example of what the scholarship providers are looking for.
Finally, consider developing a strategy to increase the student’s chances of winning scholarships from the colleges themselves. At College Coach, we believe that early planning around college scholarships is the best way to secure a quality education for a student at a discount. As the student begins to develop an interest in specific colleges (or sets of colleges, if they are settling in on a major or career path), investigate what scholarships the colleges offer. Can the student become a stronger candidate for scholarships at the specific schools they are interested in? Can they adjust their extra-curricular involvement, or increase their GPA enough, to change from an admissible candidate to a scholarship candidate? It’s much easier to make this transition happen starting in 10th grade, than it is in 12th grade.
As with all aspects of the college application process, a little preparation goes a long way in ascertaining need-based financial aid, outside scholarships, and college-based scholarships. Strategizing early on in high school can save families a lot of stress—financial and otherwise—when those college bills finally come due.