Financial Aid Best Practices

Post by
Cassandra Collins
Money continues to influence students’ postsecondary decisions, and after working as a college counselor for years, and now getting to work with counselors across the country, I’ve picked up some strategies that effectively support students and families in navigating financial aid when making their postsecondary decisions.
Financial Aid Best Practices

Key Takeaways 

  • Start conversations about paying for postsecondary options with families early
  • Language and context matter: use specific and inclusive language whenever possible, and understand local and state policies to help students understand options when it comes to paying for postsecondary education
  • Set incremental goals to help students prioritize financial aid and allow you to monitor students’ progress and provide differentiated support
  • Use tools and resources to help families compare financial aid award letters

Here are our favorite strategies and supports: 

Start Early

When I say early, I don't just mean submitting the FAFSA on October 1 when it opens for seniors; I mean starting conversations about paying for postsecondary education in 9th and 10th grade. Start by asking a few questions during meetings with the student and family:  

  • What do you expect to pay for postsecondary education? Who will pay? How? 
  • It can be helpful to start this discussion early, as payment and options might impact the options the student considers to pursue.
  • What options do you have to pay? How are you working towards those options now?
  • If the student is eligible for Federal Aid, almost all families will need to file taxes. With FAFSA’s prior-prior year policy, families will use taxes filed during the student’s sophomore year of high school. Making sure the family is filing taxes, and filing them correctly, will make the process easier come senior year. 
  • Does the family have a 529 savings account, or other type of savings that’s already bookmarked for postsecondary education? Can the student start saving or contributing to an account? Every little bit helps!
  • Is the student potentially eligible for full-tuition scholarships? While there are lots of factors that can impact eligibility for national or state-specific scholarships, understanding options and preparing early can positively impact a student’s chances of receiving these large scholarships. 

Use inclusive language

Talking about money can feel uncomfortable and challenging, and there are lots of circumstances to consider when having conversations with students and families individually, or large groups of students. The words we use matter, so having some key terms at the ready can be quite helpful. I’ve gotten to work with some incredibly thoughtful counselors over the years, and here are some terms that I’ve learned and adopted (most of which are relevant to the entire postsecondary planning process)

  • Family instead of Parent: there are lots of types of families, and using “parent” can alienate or ostracize some students based on their family structure. 
  • It’s important to note that “parent” shows up frequently on the FAFSA. Here’s a helpful infographic (in English and Spanish) to help students figure out who to use as their “parent” when completing that form. 
  • Postsecondary instead of College: We’re working on making this shift ourselves at Overgrad so that we’re authentically and accurately talking about all options after high school. 
  • Eligible for Federal Aid: Rather than trying to talk around students’ legal residency or immigration history, using “eligible for federal aid” is specific without using offensive or limiting terms.  
  • Documentation Status:  There are lots of unique scenarios when it comes to citizenship in the United States. Using terms like DACAmented or Undocumented still don’t capture all permutations of students’ experiences, so broad terms, like documentation status, can be useful for groups. 
  • Even if you know a student’s documentation status, don’t share this publicly, or even privately with other educators. Additionally, don’t assume that all members of the same family, especially children, have the same documentation status.  
  • It’s also important to consider that students might not always know details about their documentation status. Don’t assume that students always know this information, as it sometimes only becomes apparent once completing federal or state aid forms, or needing to collect their family’s pay stubs or wage history. 

Know Your State Laws

Each state has additional nuances when it comes to paying for postsecondary education. 

  • Eligibility for State Aid: Each state makes their own rules about who can receive aid or in-state tuition assistance. It’s also important to note that state legislatures can change these policies, so it’s helpful to check updates to laws at the start of each school year. 
  • Interstate Reciprocity: Some states will allow students in other states to qualify for in-state or reduced tuition. You can read about each of those agreements here

Every Scholarship Helps

Most educators supporting students through the postsecondary application and decision making process know this, but here are a few strategies to help students internalize this too. 

  • Set Application Goals: seniors have a lot going on during the last year of high school. Setting a small goal, like submitting 25 scholarship applications, or two each week during the first semester, can help students to continue to prioritize this task. 
  • Provide time to apply: Applying for scholarships takes a lot of time, especially when considering all of the other priorities competing for seniors’ attention. Consider providing time during homeroom, a school testing day for 9-11th grade students, or even during class to help students complete these applications and reach their submission goal.  
  • Celebrate Each Award: $100 might not seem like much when students review a tuition bill, but still make sure to celebrate each award, no matter how incremental. Consider having students plan how they’ll use the money if there aren’t stipulations for use, and what that means for additional planning (e.g. “now I can take off a day from work for my graduation ceremony because I’ve got this $100 from x scholarship”). 

Track Progress to Provide Differentiated Support

The postsecondary decision making process doesn’t stop at applications, but most financial aid tasks don’t necessarily come with specific deadlines. Setting goals with students, and tracking their progress, can help counselors provide strategic support. 

  • Set Goals for Completion: Other than scholarships and final decision due dates, there aren’t many incremental progress points. Setting goals for students to complete federal or state financial aid forms or scholarship applications can break down this work into more manageable chunks. It also allows you to more regularly check if students are on or off track to completing these parts of the process. 
  • Record award letter status: Sometimes colleges send financial aid award letters with admissions decisions, separately to a student’s email address, or uploaded onto a unique portal. Using a tracking tool, like Overgrad’s financial aid award letter tool, can help track when students have received these letters, providing clearer next steps and potential intervention if students have been admitted but don’t yet have their award letters. 
  • Customized tracking: There are lots of unique situations that might require different types of support, and when you’re working with a team, it can be hard to effectively document students’ different pathways or progress. Using customizable trackers, like Overgrad’s custom fields can help keep this important information organized and accessible to those who need it.  Educators can use custom reports to export award letters or information entered in students’ custom fields to monitor progress and provide additional support. 

Compare Options

There are no federal mandates for the format or content of financial aid award letters, which complicates an already challenging process of comparing options based on financial fit. Using a tool like Overgrad’s financial aid award comparison charts can help students and families more accurately compare their options, and make a choice that’s best for them. If you’re looking for additional support, check out our lesson plans to help students and families read and compare award letters. 

What strategies do you use to support students and families through the financial aid process? Do you have any tools or resources that you love? Let us know below! 

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