Office of Admissions
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November 14, 2022
If there's anything we know about securing financial aid at college, it's that it can be a pretty complex process. That's why we've dedicated the past few episodes of College Admissions Insider to outlining each aspect of the financial aid process to help you and your family fund your dream education.
Today, we're rounding out our discussion on financial aid by chatting about what happens after your financial aid offer has been calculated. How do you find out what you've been awarded? How do you accept an offer? What should you keep in mind when finalizing your payment? We're diving into all of that and more
Our guests are two experts from Bucknell's Office of Financial aid: Erin Wolfe, the interim director of Bucknell financial aid office; and Jamie Lowthert, the associate director for financial aid.
If you have a question, comment or idea for a future episode, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[0:00:06] BT: If there's anything we know about securing financial aid at college, it's that it can be a pretty complex process. That's why we've spent the past few episodes of College Admissions Insider outlining each aspect of the financial aid process to help you and your family fund your dream education.
[0:00:23] BHA: In Episode 52, we talked about the different ways to pay for college. In Episode 53, we covered the ins and outs of applying for financial aid. If you're joining us just now for our third and final episode in this series, we encourage you to go back and start from the beginning. We promise, you don't want to miss a minute.
[0:00:40] BT: As for who we are, I'm Brooke Thames from Bucknell University.
[0:00:44] BHA: And I'm Becca Haupt Aldredge, also from Bucknell.
[0:00:47] BT: Today, we're rounding out our discussion on financial aid by chatting about what happens after your financial aid offer has been calculated. How do you find out what you've been awarded? How do you accept an offer? What should you keep in mind when finalizing your payment? We're diving into all of that and more.
[0:01:03] BHA: Here to guide us again are Erin Wolfe, interim director of Bucknell’s Financial Aid Office, and Jamie Lowthert, assistant director of Financial Aid.
[0:01:11] BT: Welcome back to the podcast.
[0:01:13] EW: Hi, Brooke. Thanks for having us today.
[0:01:15] JL: Thank you for having us today.
[0:01:17] BHA: So far in this series about financial aid, we've covered the various options available for paying for college and the process of acquiring financial assistance. Now, when all is said and done and a student has been accepted, how will they know whether they've received financial aid or scholarships?
[0:01:34] JL: The release of award notifications is very, very school dependent. Here at Bucknell, students will receive their financial aid notification at the time of acceptance, assuming the student has submitted the necessary financial aid paperwork, which is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the CSS Profile, copies of parents federal tax return and — if there's a non-custodial parent in the mix — the non-custodial parent form submitting the necessary paperwork.
That's not the case at every other school. Schools that have enrolling admissions, students may not receive their financial aid notification until March. They may be accepted in November, but will not be notified of aid eligibility until several months afterwards. It is very, very school dependent.
When a student does receive their financial aid notification, what they should expect to see on that notification is the school's cost of attendance and any financial aid that a student may be eligible for, which could be the forms of grants, scholarships, work study, student loans. If a student has questions or concerns about, “When will I be notified of my financial aid eligibility?”, the financial aid websites for all colleges should list that there. I would really encourage families to make sure that they familiarize themselves with the colleges that they're looking at their financial aid websites, because many of their questions are be able to be answered there.
[0:02:59] BT: When it comes to the notification itself, what form might that take? Is that maybe an online portal, or an email, or a piece of paper you receive in the mail? What might students be getting?
[0:03:10] JL: Once again, very school specific. Here at Bucknell, we send a paper letter home to students, and we also put it in their admissions portal. The student will have access to it both paper-wise, so parents can see it. Then in the portal that students have access to it right away, once they're notified of acceptance.
[0:03:32] BT: Jamie, you spoke briefly there about what students will see on that notification. I wonder, as they're getting these different offers from different schools with different processes, can they expect to see their financial aid broken down in the same way, regardless of the school? Or is it an anything goes situation when it comes to communicating those details of the financial aid packet?
[0:03:52] EW: Really, Brooke, anything goes. Unfortunately, at this point in time, schools are not required to use a standard award notification across the board. Students will definitely see a variation in how the information is provided to them. Problems with the award letters, again, no standard format. It can be difficult to interpret or compare and really contrast financial aid awards between schools. There's definitely differences in definitions of cost of attendance. Some schools won't even include the cost of attendance on the award letter, while others may just include tuition and fees but omit room and board. Others could include the room and board in addition to tuition and fees, but won't include other costs, such as books, supplies, transportation and personal expenses. That's just a variation in cost of attendance.
Then identifying award components. Sometimes, award letters use cryptic acronyms to identify parts of the financial aid award, without spelling out necessarily which could be a loan, and which are grants, and which our work study. When loans are included, the colleges rarekt highlight the terms of the loan with the interest rates. Some of that is because we on the school side don't receive updates to the federal interest rates until around the middle of May each year. It's hard for us, if we're sending out award notifications in March, to have those pieces of information available. Some scholarships, potentially, might be providing different amounts of…because of institutional funding, you're going to see variations in what the schools were able to provide. When looking at merit and/or need based grant dollars, certainly, there's going to be variances based on the school's financial aid budgets, and based on, possibly, different programs that they do offer on their campuses.
Then looking at the overall award, know that not all schools can fully meet a student's 100% demonstrated financial need. There could potentially be a gap. We don't do this here, but some schools will automatically package a Parent PLUS loan in the student’s financial aid award notification. It would look potentially that there is no gap, but it is looking to the family that their expectation is for the parent to assume the debt through the parent loan program. Be aware that schools will definitely put their information in an award notification in different manners. We're hopeful one day to have a standardized format. But at this point in time, that has not been mandated by the federal government.
[0:06:27] BHA: Wow, and so it does sound like it is an anything goes situation. You really need to take the time to read these letters carefully and make sure that you're understanding what's being offered to you, as it relates to the total cost of attendance at a particular university or school.
We talked about a spreadsheet in our last episode. Jamie, you offered that great idea as a tracking tool for when you're submitting your applications. Do you have any tips and tricks for also tracking and keeping organized what schools are offering you and how to compare those?
[0:06:57] JL: I am a huge fan of spreadsheets. Once again, I would encourage families to develop a spreadsheet of the schools the student has applied to, been accepted to and received their financial aid offer.
If I was developing a spreadsheet, how I would go about creating it is I would list the school's direct expenses. Just as a refresher, direct expenses are what the student will be billed by the school, which would include tuition, maybe fees, if the school has lab fees, room and meals. Then I would also include, as a side note, indirect expenses. And they vary so much from school to school, but they’re expenses that relate to books, supplies, transportation. There are expenses that aren't billed by the school, but the student may experience those while they're away at school.
Once I have those two components on the spreadsheet, then I would list out what scholarships and grants the schools have offered to my student. If a school may have offered $10,000 in a scholarship and a $20,000 grant, I would list that on the spreadsheet. I would have a calculation to determine what my net cost is. What are the direct expenses of the institution, less my scholarships and grants that the school is receiving, to look at what my net costs would be if my student decided to enroll at that particular school? I wouldn't include student loans in that calculation, because students can borrow loans at any institution that they're going to. What you really want to be looking at is what is my bottom line if my student chose this school, after their free aid of scholarships and grants?
[0:08:37] BT: Yeah, that's a really great advice. With all of those expenses and financial aspects taken into consideration, at the end of the day, students are going to, ultimately, have to choose a school to go to. I imagine it's not as simple a decision as the school with the best aid offer wins. We know that financial aid is a necessity for so many students seeking higher education and that each family has their own unique needs. How could a student and their family go about choosing a school that both serves their needs and their dreams?
[0:09:11] EW: Well, I can certainly understand the financial component of a school being a critical element when determining a school. But just some points and things that I tend to, when a student or family comes in and talks with me, give to think about: When a student is choosing a school, this is touching numerous aspects of their lives, from the academic to social activities and beyond. Considering the importance of this decision, a prospective student should really think carefully about their options.
These are just some steps that I usually point out. No. 1 is certainly developing that shortlist of schools, ranking your priorities and thinking about your personal and educational needs on that college campus. Also, not procrastinating — meeting all your deadlines, so you're considered for all sources of financial aid on that college campus. If you can, make a college visit or revisit a college campus, if you need that second look. Try to look past the sticker price. Many schools will provide the scholarships and grant aid that can significantly lower your cost. Again, paying attention to those deadlines is certainly important.
As Jamie just had highlighted, comparing the financial aid award. It's wise to look beyond tuition and see what costs apply, like housing and meal plans. Are there any other fees on the campus that you're not aware of? It's important to be mindful of that as you're checking things off on your list. Looking at the college departments as you're thinking about your academic area of interest, look at the success of the department, look at the retention rates and the graduation rates. Another important piece is to evaluate the career development offices on those college campuses to look at the connectivity, internship opportunities and other things that are programming opportunities that are available that don't cost the student any money out of pocket, and they can attend and get all those free services from that career development area.
Really, really, really important is communicating with your family. Families need to talk. They need to look at the schools. They need to talk about the pros and cons. Again, look at the financial aid component, but look at the other outcomes of the campus when they're fully making that overall college decision.
[0:11:19] BT: Erin, you highlighted so nicely, so many things there: visiting campus, looking beyond the sticker price at what a school offers in terms of resources. You mentioned career advancement and opportunities after graduation. I think that's such a good reminder that we have to sometimes zoom out a little bit from our spreadsheet, which is equally important, but also see the big picture of what is ultimately a family decision.
You also brought up deadlines, which was a great reminder for us as well. Here at Bucknell, students have until May 1 to enroll. How long do students have to make a decision about which school to attend and which financial aid offer to ultimately accept?
[0:11:56] JL: May 1 is not specific to Bucknell. May 1 is the national deposit deadline. That's the date that a student commits to attend a particular school. However, the decision deadline for a student to commit to a school depends on the application cycle that they apply to. For example, if a student applies Early Decision to an institution, the date that they would commit to the school would be a lot sooner than May 1. If a student applies Early Decision I, they would have to notify the institution that they are committing to the school in January. Early Decision II would be typically in February. Students who are applying Regular Decision, it's May 1.
When students are notified of their financial aid eligibility, schools will provide the students with information as to the next step in the process. Once again, that is so school specific and dependent on what's the next step in the financial aid process. Does the school require the student to accept their awards? Do they not? What are the steps to accept the student loan? Schools will give very specific instructions to the students once they say, “Yes, I'm definitely coming to this school.” Then the financial aid office will start communicating with them, “Okay, you need to do this, this and this for us to get your financial aid in order, so we can disperse it to your student account.”
[0:13:17] BT: At a school like Bucknell, how might a student formally accept a financial aid offer?
[0:13:22] EW: Sure. The way it works here at Bucknell, students will receive their login after depositing, and their login gets them into the internal site of Bucknell, which includes our financial aid self-service portal. Within that portal, in May and June, we will begin communicating with students just to remind them of their process to accept financial aid. That is not to accept need-based grant aid. We ask you to confirm if you would like to accept or decline your federal student loan. That is the type of aid that we are looking for students to decide a 100% if they're in or out of taking those options. We wouldn't have a student determine if they're not wanting to take their merit scholarship or grant-based aid more specific to the federal loan program.
Other schools could ask you to return a signed copy of the award notification if they don't have a portal or don't actively use that, but more and more schools are going to that electronic process of having a student log into their system and generate the decision right there.
[0:14:25] BHA: In addition to the things that you mentioned, Erin, are there other things in the portal that a student should look for or know to go in and access in that digital space?
[0:14:34] EW: At Bucknell, again, we use our portal to list the current financial aid award. We will also list terms and conditions of our financial aid offers. If there's anything, again, changing in the future due to family size or household income, those notifications are listed in there. We list our financial aid history, so students as they're matriculating through, can go back and see financial aid awards from year-to-year — can keep track of any debt that they have, so they're better prepared to have a full log of what they'll be paying after they leave Bucknell. If a student receives outside scholarships, and we do list that information on there as well, and they can confirm that, “Yup, that's right. I should have had a check from XYZ scholarship organization.”
If there's any other new notifications or things we need to tell a student, we'll post those through there. Also, list some of our policies, like the Satisfactory Academic Progress Policy, which is critically important to receiving federal financial aid. Those are just some of the key things that we do highlight within our specific portal.
[0:15:36] JL: I just want to add also, we use our portal to communicate with students as to what documents are required for them to reapply for the following academic year.
[0:15:46] BT: Yeah, sounds like that portal is a really important and powerful place to be checking in and keeping up with as student's navigate the enrollment process and accepting their financial aid offer.
When it comes to billing, at what point do students begin paying the fees outlined in their financial aid package? What might that process even look like?
[0:16:06] EW: Typically, schools will bill students sometime after July 1. It will certainly vary at each school. Typically, our fiscal years run July through the end of June. Typically, billing for universities will follow that as well. We like to have our bills out to students by, certainly, the second week of July. It does give students a few weeks to pay the balance due. Most universities will have a due date in the very early part of August, and some may ask that you not pay until you get to campus. It really will be dependent on the university's policies and what they have set when looking to collect on the billing timeline.
[0:16:43] BHA: Once a student has accepted an offer and begins to set up their payments, is that it? Is financial aid sorted out for the rest of their time in college or are there additional steps students should be mindful of?
[0:16:54] JL: There are definitely additional steps that families and students need to be mindful of. If a student is a need-based financial aid recipient or utilizing federal student loans to help finance their student education, they need to reapply every single year. Financial aid eligibility can change from year to year depending on the family's income, household size, number enrolled in college. It is a yearly process. Need-based financial aid gets reevaluated each year based on the student's financial aid application. A family should be prepared that their financial aid eligibility could increase, decrease or remain the same, depending on how their financial circumstances have changed.
Schools are really good about notifying families and students of the reapplication process. If a student completed the FAFSA, the Department of Education is also really good about notifying students of, “Now is the time to reapply.” If a student is a state grant recipient, most state grant agencies also send reminders about reapplying. There's a lot of reminders that are sent to students in their families about the reapplication process for the following years or their time while they're enrolled in school.
[0:18:07] BT: It's great to know that this is something that is flexible and does fluctuate year to year, and that there are additional applications that students will have to file. Talking a little bit more about that reapplication process, do students and families have to reapply via the FAFSA or the CSS Profile every year? Or is the process a little bit more automatic moving forward? How are those financial aid packages reevaluated?
[0:18:29] EW: Sure. The process for financial aid is an annual requirement that students should go through each year. I will tell you that sometimes the FAFSA does make tweaks to the algorithms that they use to determine a student's eligibility. There are some changes that happen each year through the application. Students and families need to keep those FSA IDs handy, because they will log in as of October 1 — that is when it is available each year — to resubmit the FAFSA information based on that newest tax year.
For example, students looking to apply for fall of 2023 are going to submit a FAFSA with 2021 tax data. Then the following 2024 year, we use 2022. It does require that students log into that application year-to-year, update the information, update asset information. We learn if there's any changes to maybe students attending other undergraduate colleges in the household. Also, it's just an important part of it to make sure that we fully evaluated our need-based grant aid from year to year.
As far as the CSS Profile, I will say that that's going to be dependent upon the school. We at Bucknell, we only require it one time when applying to our University. Other schools may require year to year. That will be something a family, if they're looking at particular schools, need to pay attention to so they don't miss those applications. At the school side, we could require students to — even though they're listing tax information on those applications — schools that do 100% verification are going to ask for copies of tax returns and W2s, just to make sure everything is 100% correct on those applications. Then that is what really drives determining that award from year to year.
If something would have changed income dramatically, we could follow up and ask some questions, or it could conversely lead to a reduction in financial aid. There's a little bit of back and forth that we go with to request some information from families. It is truly important to make sure we have evaluated the situation fairly and equitably amongst all students on our campus.
[0:20:35] BHA: This series has covered a tremendous amount of ground for our audience, who we hope are feeling supported and maybe a little bit relieved after hearing the voices of real people who care deeply about this work related to financial aid and financing a college experience. Jamie and Erin have offered so much advice in this podcast. Please know that you can also go re-listen to an episode if you want to hear it again. You can head to the website, not just here at Bucknell but also at any institution that you're looking at, or reach out to the financial aid offices at the universities that you're looking at.
As we conclude and wrap up, is there one piece of overarching advice that you want to leave students and families with as they navigate this process?
[0:21:20] JL: My advice to families is don't make assumptions about financial aid eligibility or the financial aid process. Be aware of deadlines. Apply early. Definitely contact the college's financial aid offices with any questions you may ever have. We're here to help and guide students through the process. Definitely, if you have questions, don't hesitate to reach out to the schools.
[0:21:43] EW: I again, echo everything Jamie had just highlighted. I think it's really important for families to remember that we ask for a lot of information. That is for reasons of which, we're trying to qualify the student for as much financially possible. We're trying to do that in a manner that, as I said earlier, is fair and equitable. I think, sometimes, families may find this a little intimidating financially. But please know that we're here as an advocate for you as a student and a family, and we want to see your students be successful here on our college campus. To do so, we want to take some of the worry away on the financial aid side.
Please, work with us. Call us if you have questions. If your student comes to our University, know that we're here to help with applications year in and year out. Never hesitate to pick up the phone or touch base with us via email. We're happy to help you in any manner.
[0:22:31] BT: Well, the most sincere thanks to Erin and Jamie for joining us. As Becca noted, colleges are made up of people and one of our biggest goals on the podcast is to bring the voices of people like yourselves to our audience, let them know that you are there to support, and encourage, and cheer them on. Thanks for being here.
[0:22:48] JL: Thank you.
[0:22:49] EW: Thanks, Brooke and Becca. We really appreciate it.
[0:22:51] BHA: Thanks to everyone out there listening. If you're a fan of the podcast, please take a moment to rate, subscribe and share this episode with the students and families in your life.
[0:23:00] BT: We will be back with the next episode in just a couple of weeks. In the meantime, send your questions, comments and episode ideas to email@example.com. We read every single note that you send.
[0:23:11] BHA: Finally, you're invited to follow Bucknell on your favorite social media apps. Just look for @BucknellU on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tiktok. You can also follow our student run Instagram account, which is @iamraybucknell.
[0:23:26] BT: Until next time, keep on reaching for your dreams and your dream school.
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