College Planning: Navigating Financial Aid

January 6, 2023

Now that you’ve filed the FAFSA, you may be wondering how that information transforms into a financial aid package. Let’s take a closer look at the process.

Federal Student Aid, a branch of the Department of Education, will generate a Student Aid Report (SAR) using the FAFSA. Both you and the schools you listed on the FAFSA will be able to access this report.

The SAR includes a review of your FAFSA information as well as your calculated Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is the amount that the Department of Education believes your family can contribute towards your education for the upcoming school year. This amount can range from $0 to more than the full cost of attendance. Schools will use the EFC as a starting point when determining your financial aid package, but the final amount you’re expected to pay will differ from your EFC.

As part of the federal view, the Department of Education will determine if you’re eligible for a Pell Grant. This is a federal grant for low-income families that, if you qualify, will be part of your financial aid package at accredited colleges or universities. If you don’t get a Pell Grant, this doesn’t mean you don’t qualify for aid. The Pell Grant portion is only the beginning of the review process, and you’ll receive full financial aid packages—with other types of aid—from your colleges. 

You’ll also want to review your SAR to see if you need to provide additional information. If so, you’ll want to submit it as soon as possible to ensure schools have everything they need to determine your financial aid. This step is called FAFSA Verification, and it’s pretty common and doesn’t mean you filled the form out incorrectly.

Once a college receives your SAR, then it can begin the institutional review process. This stage varies between schools, but the goal is to assess your EFC in relation to the cost of attendance. Since cost of attendance and institutional resources vary between schools, it is likely that the end cost for each school will be different. 

Some schools may require additional information from students to determine financial aid eligibility, which is most commonly done through the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. The CSS Profile is administered by CollegeBoard and provides a more comprehensive view of your family’s financial circumstances so schools can better allocate institutional resources. 

Finally, after reviewing all of your information, colleges will send you a letter outlining your financial aid package. Once you receive packages from all your schools, you’ll want to compare award letters to determine which school makes the most sense for your financial situation. Our partner College Aid Pro can help with evaluating award letters and also with resources to appeal them if you think any mistakes have been made. You can read more about the different funding options you may be offered in this article.

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