When I was in middle school, I had an english teacher take an interest in a project I was working on. I was writing an op-ed to the local paper, and I wanted it to come out well because it was of particular interest to me. Specifically, a casino was being proposed near my home. I wanted to convince local voters to vote no on the ballot measure to allow it. I was 13, and while I had taken a writing class, I did not consider my writing up to par. But Mr. Huff cared enough to make three good points to me that stick in my head today when I write to convince others on a topic;
Today’s Episode is about Financial Aid Appeals. In this episode, we talk to Mary Lawson, the Assistant Director of Financial Aid at Western Illinois University. In addition we answer a listeners question about paying back student loans, and discuss a top scholarship application error.
Jose: It’s June 6th, 2012 and this is episode six of the College Moneyman Podcast.
This week we’re going to talk to a financial aid officer about financial aid appeals, discuss top scholarship application mistakes and answer our readers’ questions. So stay tuned. We’re going to start out this week by talking to Mary Lawson, the Assistant Director for Financial Aid, my alma mater Western Illinois University. And Western Illinois University has a pretty diverse body and a diverse student body leads them to deal with almost every financial aid situation under the sun.
So to talk about us about financial aid appeals today, joining us via Google Voice is Mary Lawson. How is it going Mary?
Mary Lawson: Really well, thank you.
Jose “JR” Vazquez: You know, a lot of people talk about us being in an economic recovery in this country but the cost of education is still rising far faster than the rate of inflation. And people are still being laid off from their jobs and have other situations which could affect their financial aid picture. So, understanding financial aid appeals is very important. Parents need to communicate with the financial aid office when things have changed, circumstances have changed. So can you explain for us how the financial aid appeals work and how to go about getting them started?
Mary Lawson: The first step would probably be to make a contact to the financial aid office. The office is able to take into consideration special circumstances. And it’s considered a professional judgment; anything that’s beyond the scope of the FAFSA application is considered a professional judgment. The office has the ability to make those judgments but each office — each college will set their own standards of what they will review. So where some schools will look at one type of issue, another might not. So your first contact would be with the school’s financial aid office and let them be aware of what happened, you know, if you’ve lost the job or had bankruptcy or something like that. Financial aid office might be able to take that into account.
Jose “JR” Vazquez: If a parent or a student has been laid off or lost their job, what documentation do you recommend they provide and how does that affect their financial aid picture when it comes to a financial aid appeal?
Mary Lawson: A layoff or loss of a job is very common. What we do here and I know many school would do something very similar, the FAFSA asks for tax information from the previous tax year. So if the circumstances have changed since then so that their estimated income for the year that they’re in is going to be a lot less. We can review that. We have a standard form that they would complete for us with estimated income and then they would need to document some things, usually document the last date of work, a last pay stub so that we can accurately document what their income has been for that year.
And then we can recalculate the expected family contribution, we can recalculate that using the next year’s tax estimate instead of the one that was on the FAFSA. And I know in our case we will only do that change if it benefits the student. And I think most schools will do that as well. So if it for some reason they are getting a lot more unemployment or a lot of disability insurance that actually makes their income more on paper than it was the previous year, we would not do that, we adjustment it for them. We would only do it if it benefited them.
So yeah, in most schools we’ll have a form that you would complete and require some documentation. Even though it’s a professional judgment, we do have to have documentation of the reasons and the amounts and things that we use to do that professional judgment.
Jose “JR” Vazquez: So the key really is to be sure that you stay in communication with your financial aid office and disclose everything so that they can make the best professional judgment possible.
Mary Lawson: Yes, yes, that is the key.
Jose “JR” Vazquez: Another thing I wanted to ask about was, you know, the cost of education continues to rise but each school has their own estimate as to what a particular education is going to cost, called the estimated cost of attendance. And it’s the law requires that all schools disclose this number, however, not everybody and every program is going to have the same cost of attendance. Some people may have higher costs. Can you describe to us the situation where the estimated cost of attendance for a particular student would be higher and if so, how would they communicate to the office of financial aid that they need their ECA to be increased so that they can receive more financial aid if eligible?
Mary Lawson: Again that’s something that we can do on an individual basis. Most schools will use an average cost of attendance but if a student has specific costs that are higher, now we are regulated as to what areas of cost we can include. We wouldn’t be able to include purchase of a car or some really high-end expenses but in the case where, you know, the student lives a long distance away and has a higher transportation cost, then what we normally would average in for a student on a cost of attendance, we can increase the cost of attendance for that type of thing. If a student is purchasing a computer, we can what documentation of the cost of the computer; we can add that to their cost of attendance.
Some schools add that in automatically if the students are required at that school to have a computer. So it might already be in the cost of attendance for some schools but not in others.
Jose “JR” Vazquez: Mary Lawson, the Assistant Director of Financial Aid at Western Illinois University my alma mater, joining us via Google Voice. Thank you so much for coming on today.
Mary Lawson: Okay, you’re welcome.
Jose: So last week I published an article called How to Avoid Scholarship at Application Errors, that the last man standing is often the winner. And that’s often the case. We’d like to assume that given that they are merit base scholarships that merit would be the deciding factor but the truth is, many scholarship applications get eliminated before they ever get to judges because of small errors or small mistakes. Having 2400 SAT and a 4.0 GPA will not make up for the fact that you forgot something or you missed an element or question in a scholarship application package.
So, one of the biggest issues that tend to get on scholarship judges or scholarship administrator’s nerves is that missing element; whether it’s questions that have been left unanswered, items that were to be included that are forgotten. Those things end up costing you the entire scholarship and never getting in front of a judge because you missed that element. So, the question is, how do we solve this issue? Now one of the most important things people can do when they’re under scholarship effort is to get organized, well organized.
Every scholarship you have should have its own folder and a scholarship cover sheet which details all the items that this scholarship requires before you mail it out. That’s going to be a checklist that helps you keep track of the items that you have and do not have in that particular folder. If the checklist isn’t complete and all the items aren’t there, you’re not going to mail it out without having those items included. So it’s not enough just to go on a scholarship effort. You need to get organized. This is like a part time job.
You are working for funds that others are going to award you based on your prior effort. So take it seriously, get organized and don’t let the scholarship leave your door and go into the mail without having checked every element and making sure it’s all there. This increases the chances that you’re actually going to get in front of a judge and be judged on the merits of your application and not on the mistakes.
Last week on 5-29 day, I received an email from a reader at CollegeMoneyMan.com asking me about student loan payback programs. In her letter she says, I’m a social worker who works with poor and mentally ill substance abuse users and I still have a ton of student loans. Where can I find if there are any debt forgiveness programs for people who work with the underserved? Well, Jen, first thank you for you question. Now I did some digging and here is what I found. The National Association of Social Workers keeps a directory of student loan forgiveness payback programs to help you pay off your student loans and these include Federal State and private programs that for those that work with certain populations as a social worker can have a portion of their loans paid back for them.
In fact some programs will pay back their entire amount depending on how long they work and in what area they work. In addition there are some public service programs that work on specific to social workers do apply given the work they do that also pay back loans. Now, another excellent source of student loan payback that most people tend to ignore or don’t know about are military payback programs. Uniform services, the navy, army, United States Air Force as well as the National Health Service Corpse which is a uniform branch of the government but not the military pay back student loans over so many years in exchange for service.
And you want to go and talk to a recruiter about some of these programs but there are programs out there that can help people after they’ve graduated. A sort of scholarship post graduation to help them pay their student loans off and save them a ton in debt and you really should take a look at these programs and consider them because in exchange for the work and the pay you’re already getting, the added benefit is getting all this debt off your back.
Well that’s our show for this week. Tune in next when we interview Christian Ferguson of ScholarshipPoints.com which is Advisers Company with advice on scholarship search strategies and how important scholarships are in the financial aid picture. We’ll also discuss the next dirty scholarship secret series and our scholarship of the week. So until next week, this is JR Vazquez, the College Money Man saying, good hunting.
With millions of students applying for scholarships from private funds each year to pay for the rising cost of higher education, one would assume that only the best and brightest win. After all, that is the point of a merit based system. But the reality if far from the perception. The truth is, a 4.0 GPA, 2400 SAT, and all the volunteer work in the world will not bolster an application that has errors or is incomplete. Simply put, small errors and lack of attention to detail could be costing them or their child thousands in scholarships each year.