If you’re a first-generation college student like me, navigating and understanding financial aid can be confusing. I had to learn a lot through trial and error and figure it all out on my own.
Here are a few things I wish I had known before entering college.
What To Know About Financial Aid
1. Know where your funds are coming from
So you got accepted to college and you’ve received your award letter! As exciting as it is to get financial aid, it’s important to understand where these funds are coming from.
What exactly is an award letter? An award letter is a document that breaks down the funds you’ll be receiving throughout the school year. This includes how much scholarship aid you’ll be receiving from your institution, how much you’re eligible to take out in loans, the total cost of attendance, and much more.
Take note of the deadline to decline or accept the award you’ve been offered. If there are errors in the award letter or you need to appeal for more money (yes, you can and should do this), you’ll need to take care of this before that deadline.
2. Mind your balances
Once you’re enrolled, you’ll be able to view your student balance, which is how much you still owe the college after your financial aid is applied. It may vary by college, but typically your balance is available to view and pay electronically through your school’s online student portal.
Pay attention to the deadline to pay off your balance. In most cases, if the balance isn’t paid by the deadline you won’t be able to register for classes. If you can’t pay off the balance by the deadline, inquire about a payment plan, which will likely let you pay down the balance by making monthly payments throughout the semester or school year.
Some students may have a negative balance, which means they’re owed a refund. Make sure the college has your correct address and banking information, along with any other information they request, so the refund doesn’t get lost.
3. Save everything & take screenshots
There are many documents you’ll have to review and fill out. Read them all carefully. Don’t skim!
Information is constantly changing, especially when you first enroll, which is why it’s important to have proof you’ve submitted documents and received them. Not having proof can result in the loss of funds, classes, and more.
For digital documents, not all come in PDF format or are downloadable. If it’s important, take a screenshot. And make sure to give each document a recognizable name. Trust me, you won’t be able to find “screenshot1051” as easily as “award letter 2022.”
Keep all your physical paperwork in one safe place that you can easily access. Set up a digital folder on your computer where you’ll save all your documents and screenshots.
Pro tip: Take screenshots of your student balance and the financial aid breakdown regularly. These records can come in handy if there are any issues with your aid package in the future.
4. Learn about the different college offices
Not all financial matters are handled by the financial aid office. Depending on what it is you need help with, you’ll need to contact different offices within the college. A couple of examples: You may need to talk to the registrar, the office in charge of class registration, or the bursar, the office in charge of managing your tuition bill and payments.
Your school may not always have the information you need. If you’re receiving state grants or private scholarships, you may need to work with those organizations directly.
5. Check into health insurance waivers
Did you know you need health insurance to attend college? Many colleges will automatically charge you for their student health insurance plan, which can cost thousands of dollars. However, if you already have health insurance, you can avoid paying those charges by completing a waiver form by the deadline. To get a waiver, the college will ask you to submit proof that you are already insured and that you will be eligible to stay on this health insurance for the whole school year.
6. Keep track of deadlines
I said it before and will say it again, pay attention to deadlines! Whether you prefer the calendar app on your phone, an online or computer-based organizer, or old fashioned pen and paper, keep track of every due date. And, set reminders. You may not be able to fill out a document or pay a bill as soon as you receive it, but don’t leave anything until the last minute. Make sure to give yourself enough time to ask questions and correct errors before a deadline passes.
Don’t rely on the school to send reminders. For example, if you received a Federal Work-Study grant, you’ll need to stay on top of the school’s deadline to secure a work-study job. Colleges typically don’t send reminders for this or announce when new work-study jobs are available. It will be up to you to keep checking for new work-study job posts and apply before the jobs are filled. You don’t want to miss out on an opportunity to earn money because you didn’t take action in time.
Pro tip for procrastinators: Set multiple reminders throughout the week or two before a deadline! If you’re the type to ignore reminders, then enter an earlier deadline on your calendar! For example: If the school’s health insurance waiver is due by July 15, then enter it in your calendar as due by July 8 (and don’t note that it’s a fake deadline).