Financial aid helps put community college within reach for thousands of Virginians, but a few common mistakes and misconceptions can prove costly. VCCS Director of Financial Aid, Laurie Owens, offers some insights on how to navigate a path to success.
1. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is available Jan. 1, but students often don’t apply until the last minute. What sort of problems does this present?
Unlike the Federal Pell Grant, there are many forms of financial aid that are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis due to the fact that there is a limited pool of funding. Therefore, it is imperative that students apply early to maximize their eligibility for financial aid. Furthermore, if additional information is needed from students to determine their eligibility, that can slow the process down. It is important that students account for this possibility by applying early. In this way, their aid can be in place in time to register for classes. What can financial aid advisors do to help? It is imperative that colleges make it clear to students what their priority dates are for financial aid. Colleges accomplish this in a variety of ways including but not limited to outreach events at local high schools and in the community, posting information on their websites, and reaching out to current and perspective students using a variety of communication methods.
2. In many cases, students simply don’t know financial aid is an option, or they think they won’t qualify because of their income. Regarding the latter, what resources are available to help students make more informed decisions?
The U.S. Department of Education provides a tool called the FAFSA4caster which estimates eligibility for federal student aid. It can be found at https://studentaid.ed.gov/fafsa/estimate. Likewise, the VCCS hosts a tool called the Virginia Education Wizard which also includes an award estimator that calculates aid eligibility specific to Virginia’s Community Colleges. Both tools can be utilized to determine if applying for financial aid is worthwhile.
3. Students may not realize that there are numerous scholarships offered by their community college. How do students find out about this “free money” and what are the colleges doing to make them aware of scholarships?
The Virginia Education Wizard can also be utilized to become aware of scholarship opportunities at Virginia’s Community Colleges. These opportunities are also advertised on college websites along with a direct link to the Virginia Education Wizard. Colleges also employ outbound campaigns to ensure that students are aware of scholarship opportunities.
4. If a student is working and attending college on a part-time basis, how will they know if they’re taking on too much debt? What sort of guidance do the colleges offer?
Students are required to undergo loan entrance counseling prior to receiving federal student loans. Federal regulations only require this of first-time borrowers but many of our colleges require it annually. Although community colleges are not permitted to restrict student borrowing to lower than the annual limits established by the federal government, it is commonplace for them to counsel students to be conservative in their borrowing. It is also important that students who plan to seek bachelor’s degrees reserve a portion of their lifetime loan limits for that course work. Lastly, many of the colleges have contracted with a third party vendor to provide financial literacy and default management services in an effort to better educate students and to reduce loan default rates.
5. Many students operate under the premise that the more classes they sign up for, the more financial aid they’ll be entitled to. Can you explain why this isn’t the case?
Although this is generally true for the Federal Pell Grant which is prorated based on enrollment status, it is important to realize that as the award increases, so do the tuition charges. On the other hand, there are also many forms of aid that simply require a minimum number of credits and become stagnant beyond that minimum threshold. In that case, tuition charges would increase when more classes are taken but the award amount would not follow suit. This can often be the case with state aid and most certainly with federal student loans which require a minimum of six credit hours. Students should base their registration decisions on their academic abilities and goals and not necessarily on the amount of aid they will receive. Student success should always be the driving force.
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