College financial aid surprises to watch out for

High school counselors do their best, but college financial aid is a tricky little bugger. Photo: Colleges try to make getting financial aid easy; they fail.

CHICAGO, February 18, 2013 — It’s an interesting time of year to be a prospective college freshman. Applications have all been submitted, and there’s nothing left to do but wait for those yes or no emails.

It’s also an interesting time of year to be the parents of prospective college freshmen. Financial aid applications are due.

Our local, highly rated college prep high school puts a lot of effort and energy into helping the students and their parents navigate the college application process. It starts in the freshman year with low-pressure advisory sessions to get students thinking about what they want from a college.

Counselors help them narrow or expand their list to an appropriate number of “safety” schools (colleges you are sure you will be accepted to), “desirable” schools (those you think you will be able to attend), and “stretch” schools (those you really want to attend but only have a slightly better chance of acceptance to than that proverbial snowball has in hell — you know, Harvard, Yale and the like).

A financial aid checklist will help avoid missing deadlines.

Newly added to the list of categories is the “Financial Safety” school, the one you can afford if you end up with no financial aid whatsoever.

That is the trickiest one to find. Here’s a clue: Ignore the “Tuition/Room and Board” number. Look for the “Cost of Attendance.”

Ah, financial aid. Here’s where you fit in, Mom and Dad.

If you have a college-bound senior, you should be quite familiar with the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). If you have a darling little over-achiever, you are also quite familiar with the CSS Profile required by many Ivy-type schools. Our high school goes so far as to host an evening seminar for parents with College Planners, Inc., a company that specializes in helping “families demonstrate as much financial need as legally possible by employing sound college financial aid principles.” (No, having your child legally declared independent does not negate your financial responsibility as far as college is concerned; the government caught on to that one pretty quickly.)

Soon after January 1, there is a second evening for parents and their student to actually sit in the computer lab with their tax forms and fill out the FAFSA together. Sounds like a true bonding experience. “You have how much in your mutual fund?!” We skipped that one.

Even with the tremendous effort our high school puts into helping parents navigate the process, there were a few things they neglected to mention. Remember that list of Safety, Stretch, etc. schools that your student created?

The list ends up being anywhere on the plus side of about six schools. Ours was nine. A friend’s was 14. With the exception of early decision/early action and rolling applications, most of those schools will notify your student as to whether they have been admitted sometime around the end of March. Financial aid applications for most of those schools are due by March 1. Therefore, you must fill out the financial aid application for every school to which your child has applied. My next child will have a very short list.

While some schools will simply use your FAFSA to determine aid, many have additional requirements. Those elite schools will want the CSS Profile, but so do some state schools (for instance, University of North Carolina). Some schools which use the FAFSA and/or the CSS Profile also require you to fill out their school-specific documents (UPenn, University of Illinois).

The CSS Profile will notify you if any of your schools require additional documents. Sometimes. Some universities prefer to notify the prospective freshman through their university email system. Your kid may have to set up emails at several schools, and unless you have full faith that your second-semester senior will notify you of additional requirements in a timely manner, not say at 9 p.m. the evening before the deadline, you may want to get the passwords to those email accounts.

The CSS Profile schools that require additional documents may use the IDOC system, allowing you to submit one set of documents to the College Board, which will then make them available to several schools. Or they may not use IDOC. They may want you to submit additional documents directly to the school by March 1 or April 1 or February 15.

A spreadsheet is a really good idea.

No matter how many times you hear “Applying for financial aid is easy,” it’s not. OK, each individual step is easy, but each individual school has their own individual steps. No matter what Common App and FAFSA try to tell you, there is no one-form-and-you’re-done way to do this.

The biggest surprise to this household, however, was that several schools require your current tax forms by March 1. We have to have our taxes done by March 1? We normally don’t even start looking for the charitable donation receipts until April.

So the scramble is on.

The plus side of all of this is that in less than two weeks, our taxes will be filed, our FAFSA updated, and there will be nothing left but to wait for our second-semester senior to notify us when he gets those acceptance emails, then to wait to see what financial aid packages are offered, then to partake in the parent/child debate over which school will be the best bang for the buck, then to make sure the final acceptance is filed, the paperwork filled out, the dorm supplies bought, get the car ready for the road trip, and then the final, long drive home. Alone.

From our household to every household of a second-semester senior/prospective freshman, Good Luck!  

Julia Goralka hopes to emerge from her child’s college application process a stronger, wiser woman. At the very least, she will not be standing in line with her tax return at 11:59 pm on April 15.

Contact Julia via Facebook at or through the Ask Me A Question link above.

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Julia Goralka

In addition to her work at The Communities, Julia Goralka is a free-lance novel editor and has served as a volunteer board member or committee member for several local charitable organizations. Prior to writing and editing, Julia was the Division Coordinator for the interest rate derivatives marketing desk at a large financial institution based in Chicago.

Contact Julia Goralka


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