According to a recent College Board Report, the average cost to attend an in-state public university is currently around $25,290 per academic year. This amount represents typical college-level expenses like tuition, fees, housing, meals, books, and supplies. Choose to go to a private university instead, and the report indicates that this number will likely more than double, with students at these institutions paying almost $51,000 annually to earn their degrees.
It is numbers like these that cause many up-and-coming scholars to look for financial help when it comes to pursuing the degree of their choice. But, sadly, many make costly mistakes when it comes to financial aid, leaving them with a bigger bill when they graduate than is necessary.
To keep you from becoming one of them, here are five financial aid mistakes that you as a college student can (and should) avoid making.
#1: Not Applying at All
In 2015, a NerdWallet analysis revealed that, in one year’s time, more than $2.9 billion in Pell Grant money—which is free federal grant money—goes unused simply because students don’t complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, best known by its acronym FAFSA. In fact, only 53% of students took the steps necessary that year to learn whether they qualified for this type of aid.
The analysis also revealed that students in some states fared worse with this than others. For instance, Utah had the highest rate of high school seniors who didn’t complete the FAFSA (40%). However, it was California’s non-applicants who left the most Pell Grant money “on the table,” with more than $396 million available to students in that state, but it was never applied for.
Yes, financial aid forms can be lengthy and require a lot of information. But they’re also worth completing if it means that you get to keep more of your hard-earned money once you graduate with your degree.
#2: Missing the Financial Aid Application Deadline
Another major mistake that some college students make is missing the financial aid application deadline, even though this warning is listed right on the U.S. Department of Education Federal Student Aid’s FAFSA application website. That’s why it’s important to know when your application is due, whether you’re applying for aid through the federal government, the state, or the university you wish to attend.
Most applications will have the deadline right on the forms. If yours doesn’t, or if you cannot locate it, contact the aid-based agency directly and ask what the deadline is. Alternatively, you can also contact the financial aid office at the university as they’ll likely have that information available. And if they don’t, they’ll know how to get it.
#3: Making Errors on the Application
In their free guide Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, financial aid experts David Levy and Mark Kantrowitz share that some of the most common mistakes college students make when completing the necessary forms revolve around errors. These are mostly errors that can easily be avoided simply by double-checking your answers before sending the application in.
For instance, you want to make sure:
- You’ve signed the forms in all of the necessary places.
- All identifying information is correct (such as your full legal name, address, date of birth, and Social Security number), preventing a data match error.
- All of the fields are filled in, even if that means entering a zero or writing “N/A” for not applicable.
- No numbers have been transposed or entered incorrectly (like entering $500,000 when you meant to enter $50,000).
- Tax and income have been reported correctly. For instance, make sure you didn’t report your adjusted gross income (AGI) in the federal income tax field or that you aren’t confusing Supplemental Security Income (SSI) with Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
- You accurately list all of you and your family’s required assets which, depending on your circumstances, may include things such as college plans of siblings and rental properties. Alternatively, don’t include qualified retirement accounts as assets.
- The dependency status, marital status, and household size are all reported correctly.
#4: Filing for the Wrong Academic Year
In addition to double-checking the accuracy of your financial aid forms, you also want to ensure that you’re filing the forms for the correct academic year. The last thing you want to do is take the time to fill in all of the information and submit it on the wrong form.
In other words, depending on when you file, last year’s financial aid forms may be mixed in with the forms required for the upcoming school year. So, look at the forms you’re about to complete closely, verifying that they’re for the year that you will be attending school and requesting the aid.
#5: Not Taking the Time to Look for Scholarships
When most people think of financial aid, they think only of federal, state, and university-sponsored aid. Yet, there are thousands of other sources of financial aid out there. Scholarships are one to consider as you can use them to help pay for your education without having any payback requirement. This lowers the amount you’ll have to begin to make payments on once you graduate with your degree.
Some scholarships can be found through the university itself. For instance, Saint Leo’s online scholarship system enables you to search its 350+ available privately-funded scholarship offerings. All you need is your portal username and password to access the system.
You can also find scholarships available outside of the college or university you plan to attend by doing an online search. Scholarships.com provides this service, and it even allows you to search for them by factors such as your major, ACT or SAT score, ethnicity or race, military affiliation, state of residence, and more. Other sites offer similar options, so search a few of them and see what you can find.
Avoid these costly mistakes, and you can earn your degree knowing that you did so without having to pay more than you should. And any day you can save money is a good day. Agreed?