Preparing for College: Guiding Your Students Through Financial Aid Options & FAFSA

Preparing for College: Guiding Your Students Through Financial Aid Options & FAFSA

Learn how counselors can help ease the financial burden of college for students

 As well as a few additional recommendations to pass along to families navigating the college application process for the first time.

“Where do you want to go to college?” This may be the most dreaded topic of conversation for juniors and seniors in high school. As a society, we put so much pressure on the college decision (and sometimes forget that there are other pathways besides a four-year degree). We act as if kids must find the perfect fit to ensure all of their academic needs and extracurricular interests are met. 

This all-or-nothing mindset, paired with the application process itself, makes the whole “growing up thing” quite daunting for a seventeen year old. Families and educators try to help by prompting students to complete their Common App, request recommendation letters, apply for local internships, and write application essays. These reminders, of course, are important; we want students to meet deadlines and choose majors specific to their passions. 

However, if we really want future generations to be successful, we should instead ask about where they see themselves after those college years. 

Whenever I asked my own students how they pictured their life in ten years, none of their answers involve crippling debt. Yet, if schools don’t talk about paying for college and guide these kids through making smart financial decisions, that’s exactly where they’ll be, right alongside our current millennials. 

Watch our webinar on how to leverage Xello’s resources when submitting FAFSA forms

Below are four suggestions for counselors to help ease the financial burden of college for students, as well as additional recommendations to pass along to families navigating the college application process for the first time. 

1. Be a Resource for Students and Families  

Applying for college, and then deciding on which to attend, can be incredibly stressful for students and families alike. There are two ways counselors can proactively help minimize these feelings: by providing college guidance and offering coping strategies for big emotions. 

Communicate Regularly About College Planning and Financial Aid

Since most districts now prioritize future readiness programming, students often know their preferred career clusters by junior or senior year. That means that a main hang-up isn’t deciding on a major, but instead where to even start in the application process

Luckily, there are many comprehensive guides out there for students, families, and counselors alike. U.S. News publishes a yearly easy-to-follow handbook to help readers understand the steps and timelines for applications and financial aid. The Best Schools, a website that provides in-depth rankings of programs and universities, not only offers steps for applying to college, but also suggests questions and activities to help students prioritize deciding factors when selecting a school.

As a counselor, it’s critical that you communicate often and through a variety of mediums to ensure all students feel supported and knowledgeable about college planning and financial aid. Consider implementing the following:

  • Holding grade-level meetings. Scheduling grade-level assemblies is an efficient way to ensure all students receive the same information. Just make sure you have a plan for absent students, such as hosting a follow-up meeting or sending home a handout with the highlights. 
  • Adding information to the daily announcements. Daily announcements is another Tier I method of sending out information to the whole study body. If you use this method, make sure the announcements are read or published for at least a week.
  • Meeting with small groups for additional support. Some students – such as those applying to ROTC or highly selective colleges – may need additional support. It’s best practice to not only identify your own groups, but also promote voluntary sign-ups for those interested. 
  • Utilizing online learning platforms. Distribute information via online learning platforms, such as Schoology, Google Classrooms, and Blackboard, to announce financial aid deadlines and local scholarship opportunities. 
  • Hosting one-on-one meetings. Meet one-on-one with students to discuss goals and walk through vital application steps, such as requesting recommendation letters and track important deliverables

Counselors also have the responsibility of communicating these expectations with families. By hosting virtual coffee chats and evening Q&As, as well as sending out informational newsletters, educators can help distribute resources surrounding college and financial aid applications. This onboarding of families is incredibly important, as it creates a web of support for students navigating through an exciting yet stressful time in their lives. 

Assist Students to Combat Anxiety with Coping Strategies

Application stress is a real thing; it’s hard for seniors to manage future planning, regular school work, sports, extracurriculars, and a social life at the same time. Therefore, it’s imperative that you warn students about these potential feelings and provide them with a list of suggestions to help them combat this specific anxiety. 

Similarly, counselors should equip families with ways to help their teen navigate the pressures of college applications. By using evidence-based strategies at home, parents can help their child develop appropriate coping strategies that improve self-regulation. 

2. Make Sure Students Understand Financial Aid 

Financial aid is funded by various sources, such as federal and state agencies, colleges, high schools, foundations, and corporations. In order to be granted financial aid, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by answering a series of questions regarding family makeup and finances. States and colleges also use this data to award eligibility for their own financial assistance. Once the aid is offered, students have the ability to accept or deny the offer.

Below are the various types of financial aid students can apply for and receive. It’s essential for students and families to know the difference, especially between financial aid that is gifted and aid that must be paid back with interest. 

Federal Student Loans

Federal Student Loans are fixed-rate loans from the government and are the main source of granted financial aid. It is important to stress to students and families that before a loan is accepted, they must understand all of the conditions and their own responsibilities.

Federal Grants

Federal grants are good options to share with families who may believe money is standing in the way of their child receiving higher education. Most grants are only given to students in financial need, such as the Pell Grant, which is awarded to students whose families earn an average of $25,000 or less per year. Note that while most students don’t have to repay federal grants, there are extenuating circumstances, such as if their enrollment status changed. 

CSS Profiles

Over 400 schools and organizations use the College Board’s own application, CSS Profile, to award non-government financial aid. Seniors can submit their application starting on October 1 and must pay a $25 fee (although College Board offers fee waivers). Encourage students to research if their preferred schools accept the CSS Profile and the deadlines for each.

Merit Aid

Institutions, colleges, and private organizations can award merit aid to students for specific talents or abilities. Some schools automatically offer merit scholarships based on test scores and grades, while others don’t grant it at all. According to a survey by U.S. News, only 16% of full-time students are awarded merit aid. Therefore, students should not rely on paying for college solely using this financial aid option. 

Peace Corps & ROTC

Students involved in specific groups, such as the Peace Corps or the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program (ROTC) may receive additional funds to help pay for college. This financial aid, for example, may include a scholarship that covers either tuition, fees and books, or room and board.

Work Study

Work study programs provide part-time work, typically related to the student’s coursework, to help cover college-related expenses. Students will earn at least minimum wage and work the number of hours allotted in their financial aid letter. For more information about how work study financial aid can help your students pay for college, visit the Federal Student Aid website.

3. Help Students Meet Financial Aid Deadlines

Students must meet the set deadlines to receive financial aid. Sharing these dates often and through numerous platforms will help students plan and prioritize. Not only do they need to consider national cutoffs, they should also review their state’s specific deadlines to be eligible for any grants or scholarships. In fact, it is recommended that students submit their FAFSA as soon as they can, since money is granted on a first-come-first-serve basis

4. Ensure Students Are Being Realistic About College Costs

For students who aren’t used to budgeting money, monitoring accounts, and paying bills, most numbers on the screen look just like that– numbers. To understand the scope and sequence of paying for college, educators and families must equip students with information and tools to help them make the best decision for their academic and financial situation.

Encourage Students to Research Community Colleges

Although some communities stigmatize community colleges, they can be an incredibly smart choice for students wanting to further their education at a lower cost and stay closer to home. 

Thankfully, the Biden-Harris administration is a huge advocate of community colleges and apprentice programs. Specifically:

  • First Lady Jill Biden emphasized the need for free access to community college and training programs. Moreover, Bijan Verlin, a former education policy fellow, says of community colleges: “When it comes to helping low-income students, theoretically, a community college could be a great option. It can be really affordable, it’s close to home if you have to work or if you have kids to take care of.”
  • In December 2023 the administration announced $44.5M in grants to improve rates of postsecondary enrollment in rural communities. 
  • In February 2024 the administration announced $24M in funding for workforce training programs for clean energy jobs. 
  • Additionally in February 2024, the administration announced the availability of $200M in grants to continue apprenticeships. 

Alleviate Confusion by Sharing Budgeting Tools

An important mindset to adopt during budget analysis is that financial aid is actually a five step process of acquiring and eventually paying off college loans. Financial aid letters are notoriously hard to decipher, but with a little guidance, students and families can make decisions appropriate to their needs. 

One tool that counselors can share with students is this comprehensive Financial Aid Letter Comparison analyzer. This spreadsheet helps students identify costs, aid, and potential income. By seeing the numbers side-by-side, teens will develop a true sense of what their college choices will cost. 

Another beneficial tool is the federal government’s Loan Simulator, which helps students create a payment plan that meets their needs. This tool can connect to a student’s FAFSA information, giving them accurate predictions and guidance.  

Empower Students for College Planning Success

Alexander Graham Bell once advised that “preparation is the key to success.” While counselors can’t remove the stressful nature of college applications, they can help high school students prepare for the road ahead. By consistently communicating expectations, equipping them with information regarding financial aid options, and guiding them through the decision making process, counselors can help empower students to not only plan for their college and career, but also help ensure a successful, debt-free future.

Learn how Xello’s suite of College Planning tools can help you empower your US college-bound students to submit their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.