Our Regular Decision deadline is officially behind us, which means students and counselors can heave a sigh of relief while my colleagues and I shut our doors, step away from our email inboxes, and get busy reviewing files. However, with our February 1 financial aid deadline just around the corner, there is likely still some work left to do for students and families seeking financial assistance as part of their admission to Tufts. If you are a college counselor or educator wondering how you can best assist your seniors at this time, here are some recommendations from a financial aid fanatic:
For many students, financial aid terminology can feel like an entirely new language, one filled with bizarre acronyms and unfamiliar vocabulary like Pell grant or Federal Direct loans. Providing a glossary of some common financial aid terms (like this one from my colleague Meghan) can better prepare students to work with their parents/guardians to submit financial aid documents, and empower them with the knowledge to navigate the aid renewal process independently during their later years of college.
Clarifying language is especially important for helping students make the big distinctions that inform the financial aid process. For example, is a student classified as dependent, meaning they are required to provide parental information to be considered for aid, or independent, meaning they meet one or more of the federal criteria to submit only their own income information? While most high school seniors applying to be first-time college students will be dependent students, nontraditional students or students with special circumstances may need additional support interpreting and documenting their dependency status.
Additionally, if a student’s legal parents are divorced or separated and don’t live together, the student might need assistance distinguishing their custodial and non-custodial parent. A custodial parent is the parent with whom the student lived most during the past year or, if the amount of time is equal with both parents, the parent who provided more financial support during the past year. Tufts University and many other institutions, especially those that require the CSS Profile, will require financial information from both legal parents to determine a student’s need, while the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – which determines eligibility for federal student aid programs – requires only custodial parent information. If a student does not have contact with a non-custodial parent, they will likely need the help of their school counselor to seek a waiver for the Noncustodial (NCP) Profile.
Once students understand whose information is required to apply for financial aid, it’s time to assemble the appropriate documents. The FAFSA, CSS Profile, and any institutional financial aid forms will require students to reference specific line amounts on tax documents and other financial statements. For families filing taxes in the United States, these documents generally include federal tax returns (Form 1040, including all Schedules), wage statements (typically W-2 or 1099 forms), and statements of assets (such as retirement savings accounts or college savings accounts). Having these materials nearby before beginning to fill out financial aid forms will help avoid uncertainty, frustration, blank responses, and missed deadlines. Speaking from my experience assisting students with the process, no one wants a lost W-2 to be the reason a financial aid package is delayed or reduced!
After a student submits their initial financial aid forms, they should pat themselves on back, take a deep breath…and prepare to complete a few more steps. For example, Tufts and many of our peer institutions require students to upload signed and scanned copies of parents’ and students’ federal tax documents through the College Board’s Institutional Documentation Service, called IDOC. Additionally, some students will be selected by the Department of Education for process called verification, which requires students to submit additional documents, such as tax return transcripts or proof of federal assistance, to each financial aid office in order to confirm the information listed on their FAFSA. Other students may be required to provide proof of citizenship status to each financial aid office if the citizenship status on their financial aid forms does not match what is on file with the US Social Security Administration, which is common for students who became US citizens through the naturalization process.
Each institution will have different requirements, deadlines, and procedures to follow and, unfortunately, it is often these intricate follow-up steps that prevent students from completing the financial aid process on time. For this reason, assistance from counselors, teachers, and mentors can have a tremendous impact, as can contacting college financial aid offices directly. Even if your student has already submitted their FAFSA and CSS Profile at this point, I always recommend logging back in and checking to confirm that the FAFSA was processed successfully and that the student included all colleges to which they’ve applied on both forms.
At Tufts, students can easily track the status of their financial aid materials on their application status page, but if you or your students find yourselves with specific questions, don’t hesitate to reach out. Our financial aid office is here to help!
Photo credit: 401(K) 2012 via Flickr
These tips are brought to you by an SMFA at Tufts admissions officer, Angela Jones-O'Brien. Read Part 1 of her series here.
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