What is the FAFSA?

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first key step in applying for financial aid. The FAFSA is a questionnaire created by the Federal government that determines a family’s eligibility for federal financial aid programs such as the Pell grant, Perkins and Stafford loans, and federal work study. However, many states, scholarship programs, and colleges also use the FAFSA to determine whether a family needs financial assistance to attend college, and how much. You must fill out a new FAFSA each year that you plan to apply for financial aid.

What type of questions does the FAFSA ask?

The goal of the FAFSA is to understand a family’s financial situation in a given tax year. It will ask questions such as:

• What was the total income of the household? This includes both student and parent/legal guardian income.

• What assets are owned by members of the household?

• How many people are in the household of the family applying for aid?

• How many of those people are college students?

Fill out the FAFSA Early

The FAFSA is available and should be completed January 1st of the year that the student plans on attending college. So, rising seniors who will graduate with the class of 2014 will be able to fill out the FAFSA starting January 1st, 2014. Current seniors in the class of 2013 also have time to fill out the FAFSA for Fall 2013 or Spring 2014—but should complete the form right away!

A family should fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1st. Many colleges have financial aid deadlines in early February, and submitting financial aid paperwork late may cause a delay in receiving a financial aid award. The FAFSA is available online and most families complete and submit the form this way. It is available in both English and Spanish. Keep in mind that the FAFSA is free—a student should never be asked to pay to complete the FAFSA.

Check out this video from the U.S. Department of Education on completing the FAFSA.

Junior Year Financial Aid Checklist

As high school juniors begin to research colleges and build a college list, they should also research financial aid opportunities. Here’s a checklist of steps that juniors should undertake before September of their senior year.

Learn about types of financial aid: There are many different resources to help you understand the basics of financial aid. See the Collchecklistege Board’s post Financial Aid Can Help You Afford College, the Federal Student Aid website, or past Financial Aid Friday posts on DCPS College Talk. FinAid.org is another great source to learn about types of financial aid.

Understand the difference between net price and sticker price: See our post about the difference between the published “sticker price” of a college and the actual price.

Start exploring college net price calculators: A net price calculator can help a student and their parents/guardians get a sense of out of pocket college expenses, based on financial information provided by the family. See our post on net price vs. sticker price for further details. You can also compare information for selected colleges’ net price calculators on CollegeAbacus.com.

Make a list of your interests, strengths, and passions: What do you like to do? What do you enjoy learning? What activities do you do outside of class? Making an inventory of your interests and achievements can help you identify potential scholarships.

Start researching scholarships: Check out our weekly highlighted scholarships and follow DCPS College Prep on Twitter for the Scholarship of the Day. FinAid.org and FastWeb.com have national scholarship search services. Naviance Family Connection, an online portal to search for and apply to colleges, is available to every DCPS student and also has scholarship search capabilities. Ask your school counselor about accessing Naviance.


Attend the DCPS College Readiness Workshop on June 15 at University of the District of Columbia: On June 15, 2013 from 9:30 am – 2:30 pm, college admissions officers and financial aid representatives from the nation’s most selective colleges and universities will join the DCPS College Readiness Initiative team at University of the District of Columbia to lead workshops on the college admissions process and applying for financial aid. There will also be a college fair where families can speak to college admissions officers directly. Get more details about the day and register online here.

 Questions about financial aid? Leave us a comment or send us an email at dcpscollegereadiness@dc.gov.

Scholarship Highlights – May 10, 2013

Team DC Scholarship

June 1, 2013

Max Award: $2000

Student athletes who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer are eligible for the Team DC Scholarship.

Development Fund for Black Students in Science and Technology

June 15, 2013

Max Award: $2000, renewable for four years

African-American students majoring in or planning on majoring in a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) field are eligible for this scholarship. Students must be planning on attending one of a specified list of Historically Black Colleges/Universities in Fall 2013.

Herb Block Foundation Schoalarship

July 7, 2013

Max Award: $8000, renewable for two years

Residents of the DC area who are attending an area community college in Fall 2013 are eligible for the Herb Block Foundation Scholarship. Applicants must show financial need. The award is intended as a “last dollar” award to bridge the gap between what the student can pay and other financial aid already awarded.

Net Price vs. Sticker Price

Word of the WeekStack of quarters

Net price (n.) The full cost of attendance for a particular college, minus scholarships and grants awarded to a student. Cost of attendance includes tuition and fees, room and board, books, transportation, and other miscellaneous expenses. The net price for a college will be specific to each family because it is based both on a family’s financial situation and the financial aid policies of the college.

Why is Net Price Important?

As high school sophomores and juniors begin the college search and start to look at how much college can cost, some families might experience sticker shock. Many private four-year colleges have a listed price of over $40,000 yearly, and the cost of public state university increased a record 8.3% last year alone. Families may even find themselves saying, “Let’s cross this potential college off the list right now. There’s no point in even considering colleges we can’t afford.” However, it’s important to consider the difference between sticker price, the amount published on the university website, and net price.

Don’t Get Sticker Shock

While college is certainly an investment for most families, the costs published on a college’s website is not necessarily the amount a family will pay for a student to attend that college. Why? When a student applies for college, the student and family will also apply for financial aid using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the CSS College PROFILE, and/or other financial aid forms required by the college. A student may also apply for merit-based scholarships. For many families, theses financial aid awards will greatly reduce the cost of college. This is the difference between sticker price and net price. In fact, the College Board reports that while the average sticker price for public colleges is $8,660 annually, the average net price is only $2,910. For private colleges, the average sticker price is $29,060, but the average net price is less than half of that, at $13,380. For families making less than $30,000 per year, it can be much lower. An American Enterprise Institute study notes that a family in this category paid only $4,496 to attend Stanford University in California, which had a sticker price of $55,918 in 2011.

It is necessary to have an honest family conversation about what is affordable when it comes to financing college. But as students begin to build a list of prospective colleges, don’t eliminate schools because they look expensive. Depending on the financial situation of the family and the resources of the school, a college with a higher sticker price may actually end up being less expensive than a college with a lower published cost. More expensive colleges often have higher endowments, with more money to spend on student financial aid.

Calculator.pngTools: Net Price Calculators

Since 2011, all colleges and universities that receive money from the federal government must display a net price calculator on their website. Students and parents enter their financial situation (family information, income, assets, etc.) in the calculator. The data is used to calculate the grants and scholarships that will be offered to the family. Depending on the calculator, it may also include loans that are available as part of a financial aid package. Finally the calculator displays an estimated net price based on the information entered. While it is only an estimate and not a promise of financial aid, the net price calculator can be a useful tool to understand the amount of aid a college may award to a family. Make sure to put in the most accurate information possible when using a net price calculator—the information you receive is only as good as the information you enter. The net price calculator is usually located on the financial aid webpage of a college or university. See below for examples of net price calculators.

Examples of Net Price Calculators

Davidson College, Davidson, NC

Georgetown University, Washington, DC

Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

University of District of Columbia, Washington, DC

University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI

University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA

Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA

Xavier University, New Orleans, LA

Colleges and Universities Using College Board Net Price Calculator

U.S. News and World Report Top 300 List of Net Price Calculators

Have questions? Leave us a comment or email us at dcpscollegereadiness@dc.gov

It’s Financial Aid Friday

Every Friday, we will be discussing all things financial aid – how to find, apply for, and earn dollars for college; how to know a great financial aid offer from a good (or not so good) one; and how to prepare early to finance college. This week, we honor recently accepted high school seniors attempting to decode financial aid award letters they’ve received from colleges and universities.

Financial Aid Word of the Week

Award letter (n.) A letter received after you are accepted to a college/university that spells out what is included in the financial aid package from that college. Financial aid packages often include multiple sources of financial aid (grants, loans, work study) that are intended to bridge the cost between what you have to pay out-of-pocket and the total cost of the college.

Decoding a Financial Aid Award Letter

Whether it’s called the Candidate Reply Date, Common Reply Date, or Universal Reply Date, May 1st is the designated date that many colleges and universities have agreed on as the deadline for admitted students to give notification of their enrollment decision.   Less than a week from today seniors will make a final decision about where they will attend college.  While it’s important to choose a college wisely based on location, size, and academic program, families should also evaluate which school would be their “financial best fit” college. Some of the letters you and your family are receiving from colleges may look very different from one another, even though you submitted the same financial information when you applied. How do you know what you’re really getting from each college?

Five Basic Questions

As you review your financial aid award letters from each college, you should be able to answer these five questions:

  • What is the total cost (including housing and meals, fees, books, travel, and miscellaneous expenses) for one year at this college?
  • How much grant or scholarship aid (i.e. free money, no repayment needed) did the student get?
  • How much does your family have to pay for the first year? (Includes taking out a loan, working, or using savings.)
  • What are the options for paying the amount your family owes? Are those options realistic for your family’s financial reality? (For example, using a Parent PLUS Loan.)
  • What are your next steps? (Who should you call with questions or an appeal for more aid? What forms have to be submitted by what deadline?)

If the award letter doesn’t answer some of these questions, call the college’s financial aid office and ask to speak to a financial aid counselor directly. Never hesitate to speak with the admission and/or financial aid office at your prospective college or university.

(Questions thanks to FinancialAidLetter.com)

Financial Aid Tools

Award Letter Comparison

To help you compare financial aid awards, here are some online comparison tools that will help you evaluate the “financial best fit” college:

FinAid.org Award Comparison Letter Tool

BigFuture.org College Board Comparison Tool

College Abacus Shopping Sheet

Loan Calculators

A loan calculator helps you understand what your monthly payments will be for each loan you’ve received, and how much you may need to make once you graduate in order to afford monthly payments.

ECMC Loan Calculator

FinAid.org Loan Calculator

Federal Student Aid Loan Repayment Comparison Calculator

Examples of Financial Aid Award Letters

Experts look at real financial aid award letters (from 2007-2008), “decode” them, and give them a grade for clarity. Learn what to watch for while reviewing your own financial aid award letters.

Graduation Rate

You may also want to take a few minutes to review the retention and graduation rates of your prospective colleges and universities. A lower graduation rate may indicate other challenges that exist at the college or university that would require you to ask additional questions.

College Results Online

College Navigator

What Else to Consider

What does the college/university include in the cost of attendance?

Consider tuition, fees, room and board, travel expenses, books and lab fees, and miscellaneous expenses—like pizza with friends or laundry detergent. If the award letter doesn’t budget amounts for these categories, you should add them into your personal calculations.

Does this award meet 100% of my demonstrated need?

When you filled out the FAFSA, your family received a number called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is the amount calculated that your family can afford to pay out of pocket for college expenses yearly. Colleges base their financial aid calculations on the EFC of each family. However, some colleges may not be able to award you enough financial aid to meet your entire “need,” or the amount between the EFC and the cost of attendance. Make sure that if the financial aid award and your EFC do not add up to the total cost of attendance (don’t forget books, travel, and miscellaneous expenses!) your family has a serious conversation about how to finance the remaining cost.

Can I renew merit scholarships?

Some colleges will award more grant money (i.e. free money) in freshman year. Before assuming that you will receive the same amount of grant aid yearly, ask the college whether you will be able to renew those awards. Be aware if the scholarship requires you to maintain a high GPA or is an enrollment or first year-only award.

What is the graduation rate of this college/university?

A college will be more expensive if you take more than four years to complete your degree (or two years for community colleges). Colleges with a higher graduation rate will be more likely to assist you in graduating on time thus reducing the amount of money you have to borrow or pay.

Have More Questions?

Call the financial aid office at your prospective college or university. You may leave us a comment here or call us: the College Readiness Initiative at DCPS at dcpscollegereadiness@dc.gov.

Financial Aid Friday Scholarship Highlights

Every Friday, DCPS College Talk will highlight upcoming scholarships, financial aid, and enrichment program opportunities. Please see individual websites for more information about scholarships and funding organizations.

Apply for DC TAG!

If you are a graduating senior heading to a public college/university, Historically Black College or University (HBCU), or private college in the DC Area, you should have applied for DC TAG. If you haven’t, apply here as soon as possible!

Blacks in Government Evangeline J. Montgomery Scholarship Program

April 22, 2013

Eligibility: Students must have a minimum 3.0 GPA. Must submit a transcript, essay, and recommendations.

Apply here

Foot Locker Foundation-UNCF Scholarship

April 24, 2013

Maximum Award Amount: $5000

Eligibility: Scholarship available for graduating seniors attending one of the UNCF-partnered HBCU campuses.

Apply here

Fountainhead Essay Contest

April 26, 2013

Maximum  Award Amount: $10,000

Eligibility: Students of all grade levels can submit essays based on Ayn Rand’s novels for scholarship money.

More information

DC Area Phi Beta Kappa Association Scholarship

April 29, 2013

Maximum Award Amount: $1000

Eligibility: The student must be a high school senior with a college preparatory background who ranks in the upper 10 percent of his/her class and has a grade point average of at least 3.75 on a 4.0 scale, or have the equivalent SAT score of at least 1950.

Apply here

Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. Dorothy Harris Scholarship

April 30, 2013

Eligibility: Students must demonstrate financial need and have a “C” or better average.

Apply here