Great Questions to Ask the College Financial Aid Office
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By Brian O'Connell

March 13, 2019

Any college student learns that the school’s financial aid office can be the bearer or great news or bad news, when it comes to handling the financial side of attending college.

Yet the financial aid office is much more than that, and the more you know about financial aid, the better your experience will be for the next four years on campus.

The problem is, most students and their families aren’t as familiar with their financial aid office as they need to be.

Many college students are unsure about where their financial aid comes from. They think financial aid begins and ends with the FAFSA, when in reality, college financial aid comes from plenty of non-federal financial add sources, like state governments and private grant and scholarship providers, as well as the college itself.

That type of confusion is all too common among college families, and it doesn’t need to be that way.

Ten Questions to Ask the College Financial Aid Office

To clarify the college financial aid experience, let’s take a deep dive into ten questions every collegian (and his or her parents) should ask when they speak with the college’s financial aid office after receiving the college’s financial aid award letter.

What’s the real cost of going to school here?

Most students do not pay the full sticker price to enroll at the college. The cost of attendance includes tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies, equipment, transportation and miscellaneous/personal expenses.

The actual college costs are discounted by financial aid comprised of grants and scholarships which don’t need to be repaid. The discounted sticker price is known as the net price.

That’s why it’s so important to discuss the net price of attending college with the financial aid office. It gives you a real-world idea of what is coming out of the household budget each year a student attends college. The net price correlates strongly with student loan debt.

Harvard University, for example, offers students a true cost of college calculator that tells a family what they’ll pay out of pocket that year, and how much they can expect to earn from grants and scholarships.

Every college has a net price calculate that provides a personalized estimate of your net price. The calculators vary in accuracy, depending on the number of questions in the calculator. The calculator’s net price is usually in the same ballpark as the actual net price on the financial aid award letter.

See if your financial aid office can impart the same knowledge to you.

What are your financial aid deadlines and when will we hear back after filing the FAFSA?

One of the greatest areas of confusion for college families is knowing when key financial aid forms need to be filed and when they’ll hear back on the amount of financial aid.

Your college’s financial aid office can provide a direct list of financial aid deadlines and notification dates or point it out on their web site or mobile app.

Most colleges send out financial aid award letters or notifications in March or early April, soon after the offer of admission. Some may make the award letter available earlier, especially for early decision applicants. The colleges must provide you with the financial aid award letter no later than May 1, which is the deadline for accepting the college’s offer of admission.

Your college financial aid office is a valuable source of information on acceptance letters and financial aid. Make sure you get a financial aid timeline when you’re visiting campus as a prospective student.

What is the appeal process if we don’t get enough financial aid?

Appeals for more financial aid are submitted to the college financial aid office, not the FAFSA folks.

The college financial aid office can walk you through the demoralizing experience of not getting the financial aid you requested, and steer you through the financial aid appeals process.

When you’re in contact with your financial aid office, make sure to focus your questions on key appeal issues, such as whether the college requires you to complete a form or send them an appeal letter, what is considered a special circumstance and what type of documentation they will need to consider your appeal.

The financial aid office can also provide the fine points you’ll need to when you submit the financial aid appeal.

How do I receive financial aid from my school?

Your college financial aid office can explain how, in most cases, your financial aid is made available.

The payments are usually made twice yearly, once per term, in a process called “disbursement.”

Financial aid is first applied to the tuition and fees. If you are living in college housing, the financial aid will also be applied to room and board. Any remaining credit balance is “refunded” to the student within 14 days.

Some money may be made available sooner, to let you purchase textbooks. However, if you are a first-year, first-time borrower, there may be a 30-day delay in disbursing federal student loans.

Ask the financial aid office if it disburses financial aid payments bi-weekly or monthly, instead of in a lump sum. Some colleges provide you with the option of receiving the financial aid in installments, like a paycheck. That avoids the issue of blowing through your lump sum payment within days or weeks of getting your financial aid package.

What is the average debt of your school’s graduates?

In college, financial outcomes, as measured by debt, can be as important as academic outcomes.

That’s especially the case with the total accumulated student loan debt a college graduate takes away once they leave campus. The average student loan debt after departing a four-year college or university is just under $30,000, but the actual debt level incurred by a college graduate at specific schools can vary greatly.

That’s why asking the expected college loan debt upon graduating is a fair question for college families to ask of financial aid – and the financial aid office has a responsibility to answer it, just like a mortgage lender or auto dealer would have to do.

You can also get median debt at graduation figures from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard tool. The median is usually lower than the average. This figure includes just federal student loans, and excludes parent and private student loans.

What are the part-time employment opportunities on campus?

College kids can really use a steady stream of cash, and that’s exactly what work-study programs and part-time jobs around campus, and the surrounding community, can provide.

Thus, asking about job leads for work study or in the community is a no brainer. Your financial aid office has direct knowledge of work study opportunities, and there’s a good chance it’s tied in with the Federal Work-Study program.

Many colleges have job boards posted around campus, if not a direct student employment office. Know, too, that colleges tend to over-award work study jobs, anticipating that some students will choose not to accept a job, which means there might not be enough jobs for all students who seek one.

Start your search for a job at the financial aid office and go from there.

How will scholarships impact my financial aid?

If you’re the recipient of an outside (i.e., private) college scholarship, that may curb the amount of financial aid you receive from your school, and you’ll want to know how that works.

When you receive a private scholarship, some colleges will reduce your unmet need and student loans first, while other colleges will reduce their grants first. This is called scholarship displacement.

Your financial aid office can explain how your need-based financial aid will be reduced when you win a scholarship. That might not be bad news – the college may replace student loan dollars with the scholarship dollars, reducing your net price.

The financial aid office will know for sure – if you ask.

Do you engage in front-loading of grants?

Colleges take different approaches to grants, with some giving more grants up-front (called front-loading of grants) and some weaving grants evenly among the financial aid packages for all four years in campus. You might also receive more grants and scholarships during the freshman year, since some awards are for just one year, while other awards are renewable for all four years.

If you’re not sure how your grants are paid out – ask. It could save some headaches later on, when you realize the grant money has expired.

It is also important to understand the requirements for renewing your grants and scholarships. You might need to maintain a certain grade point average or participate in community service.

Does the college really meet full demonstrated financial need?

Colleges may promise that they’ll offer 100% of all college aid needed to attend their school, but a look under the surface reveals caveats galore.

Your financial aid office should know about the ins and out of full financial need, and what that means at your school. Chances are, if you’re what colleges describe as a desirable student, it will do what it takes to make up for any financial aid you’re missing, just to get you on campus (through a combo platter of grants, scholarships and loans).

But if you’re not in the “desirable” category the going can get sticky for applicants whose financial aid package and family resources fall short of covering the full cost of attending college. Some colleges gap students by leaving them with unmet need. Bring that up with financial aid and see where your college stands on the “meeting 100% need” issue.

How will studying abroad impact my financial aid package?

When the opportunity comes up to jet off to Paris or Sydney to study abroad for a semester or two, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity of a young college student’s lifetime.

But, don’t agree to any overseas academic experience until you know how it impacts your financial aid, and what help you can expect from your financial aid office to make the finances work for you before studying abroad.

Will the financial aid package cover just tuition at the foreign institution, or also travel costs? Does the college offer any special financial aid funds to help college students study abroad?

Take Full Advantage of Your College’s Financial Aid Office

While there is undoubtedly a sense of discomfort or even fear of talking about money with strangers, that shouldn’t the case with your college’s financial aid office.

Managers and staffers know full well that weeding through the facts on college aid is no easy task, and they’re available to help.

Start your financial office experience by asking these questions. As other questions pop up, go ahead and ask those, too.

Doing so could save you a bundle of money down the line.

A good place to start:

See the best 529 plans, personalized for you


Deal with student loan debt better.

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