As if the process of applying to schools weren’t stressful enough, many families also have to contend with the additional pressure of seeking financial aid. Around 24% of students at independent schools receive some degree of financial assistance*, so rest assured that you are not alone in embarking on this process! In almost 20 years in the financial aid and admissions fields, I have found that organization, good communication, and the right mindset are tremendous assets in navigating this process successfully. Here are some tips for minimizing the stress of applying for financial aid.
Don’t succumb to sticker shock.
Don’t let the price tag of an independent school education scare you off. Most schools offer need-based financial aid, in the form of grants that do not need to be repaid, which can cover anywhere from 5% to 100% of tuition. At Fay, we offer over $4 million in financial aid each year, and we have students at every grade level from kindergarten through ninth grade receiving tuition assistance. On a related note, don’t assume that your family won’t qualify for some degree of financial aid: in some markets, even families making $150K may be eligible for assistance. Paying tuition is going to pinch, but it shouldn’t hurt. Investing in your child’s education is a mutual commitment. Schools will be asking you to stretch to be able to afford this experience for your child, but they are also feeling the pinch as they stretch their budgets to offer access to as many families as possible.
Don’t wait until you are accepted to apply for financial aid.
Every year, we get a handful of families who wait until their child is accepted to tell us that they need to apply for financial aid. This is a huge mistake. At every school, including Fay, the number of requests for financial aid exceeds the available funds, and financial aid is allocated on a first-come, first-served, basis. The financial aid application process runs concurrent to the admission application process. We encourage families to ask questions about financial aid throughout the admissions process and to pay attention to the deadlines that are established by the schools. If you are going to miss a deadline, be sure to communicate with the Financial Aid Director or Admissions Office.
Schools don’t run on the same schedule as the IRS.
When applying for financial aid, don’t wait until April to do your taxes! Families are always surprised that schools want to see the current year’s tax returns. Most schools will accept a draft return, but with financial aid applications due in January and early February, you need to be organized and complete your tax return early.
Put everything in writing.
Whatever you want a school to know about your finances should be documented in your financial aid application. Often, families want to sit down and talk about the special circumstances that make them qualified for financial aid, but ultimately that information is best presented in writing. Each school has a financial aid committee that approves each grant after reviewing the application. Financial aid portals like School and Student Services (SSS) by NAIS also have sections where families can address specific issues or challenges that complete the picture of that family’s financial circumstance. I encourage families to use that space, and they are always welcome to put additional information in writing to the Director of Financial Aid to be shared with the committee.
You can ask a school to reconsider their award.
If another school comes in with a better offer than your first choice school, many schools allow for a process called reconsideration, where you share that information with the school and ask them to reevaluate their financial aid grant. I always tell families, “Don’t close the door.” Come back and talk to us, and we will see what we can do. My goal is for every family to feel heard and respected throughout the financial aid process.
Develop a strong relationship with the financial aid director.
The relationship with the financial aid office doesn’t have to end with your admission to the school. Some schools, like Fay, have an incidental fund that they set aside to support additional expenses that may arise during a student’s time at school, such as sports equipment, music lessons, and transportation. We ask families to do their best to supply each student’s needs, but we know that’s not always possible. I communicate with families frequently throughout the school year because we want students to fully experience Fay and all the opportunities that are available to them here.
*NAIS Facts at a Glance 2015-2016