Q+A: Financial Aid Expert

Tina Steele aka The FAFSA Guru shares her tips on how to make college affordable.

~ 7 minute read

Have you been thinking about going to college, but you’re not sure where to start or if you can afford it? College can be affordable, according to The FAFSA Guru. She recommends planning ahead and organizing year-round to put yourself in the best position to get the financial aid you need.

We had a chance to sit down with Tina to talk through the beginning of the financial aid cycle, tips for your FAFSA application in light of COVID-19, and what families should be doing to prepare for the upcoming financial aid season.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and why you started The FAFSA Guru.

I landed my first job working in financial aid just out of high school and quickly fell in love with the field of higher education and helping people achieve their dreams of going to college. After putting myself through college as a non-traditional student and working in the field for 25 years, I decided to start my own business as an educational consultant. After working in the areas of admission, financial aid and student advising at the public and private college level, I noticed a common theme: there was a significant gap between the students’ (or families’) need for help and the help that was available to them.

College personnel have so many students to work with and tasks to do, so the time they can spend with students and their families is limited. There are 1-800 numbers that offer free information but are frustrating to call, and most educational consultants charge thousands of dollars. Financial aid is confusing and the process is overwhelming, and often students and their families don’t understand all of the options available to them. I wanted to create an affordable service to help them better understand and navigate the college planning, admission, and financial aid process.

Will you give us a quick overview of what FAFSA is and why it is so important?

FASFA is the Free Application For Federal Student Aid. It’s the form students use to apply for federal financial aid to help them pay for college. They need to fill it out each year they are in school. The government uses the information from the FAFSA and performs a federal methodology on it to determine a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC). College financial aid offices then use this EFC to determine how much federal aid (and state, in some cases) to offer the student. Not filling out this form will prevent you from getting financial aid, even in the form of student and parent loans. I recommend every family complete a FAFSA, regardless of income.

The FAFSA can change from year to year, however, not usually significantly. What can change each year is your financial and/or family situation, which is why the FAFSA asks for prior year income on each year’s form. The FAFSA you fill out each year will change according to your income, assets, and family size.

Is FAFSA available only at specific schools?

As long as the institution is accredited and title IV eligible, then you can use the FAFSA to apply for financial aid. Every college has different amounts of institutional aid to offer, and many things are taken into consideration when awarding this. Public colleges are more limited with this funding, whereas private colleges typically have more financial aid to offer.

Outside of the FAFSA, where else do you help students search for financial aid?

I help students and parents with the CSS profile form, which is a supplemental financial aid form that some private colleges require in order to award institutional aid. I also assist students with the scholarship search process. There are thousands of “outside” scholarships to help students pay for college. There is not one universal form to apply for these, you have to apply for each one individually and by certain deadlines. This is where a lot of students leave money on the table, by not taking the time and effort to search for and apply for them.

Applying for scholarships consistently throughout the year can make a huge difference in the amount of financial aid you receive. It can add thousands of dollars in free aid towards your college tuition. In addition, many families aren’t aware that they can appeal their financial aid award, and possibly get awarded more money, which is also something I help with.

What should prospective students know or take into consideration before applying for FAFSA?

The most important thing is to apply early — FAFSA opens up October 1st. This will ensure getting the best aid packages. Also, one of the most important parts of the financial aid process that many students miss is applying consistently throughout the year for scholarships on top of filling out the FAFSA. There are so many scholarships available!

What is the biggest mistake that students make in sourcing financial aid for college?

The biggest mistake students make is not filling out the FAFSA. Sometimes they think they won’t qualify for aid or that the form is overwhelming, so they put it off and miss important deadlines. Everyone should fill out a FAFSA, unless tuition costs are not an issue for a student or family to pay out of pocket. The next biggest mistake students make is not searching and applying for outside scholarships.

Are there specific points in the year to be applying for scholarships?

You can apply for scholarships year round, as they all have different deadlines. In August, scholarship applications open up for the following school year, so it is the best month to start applying for those. January through April is the busiest scholarship deadline season of the year, but you can apply each and every month. The key is to be consistent.

What tips can you give students right now in light of COVID-19?

If your income has decreased due to COVID, it’s extremely important that you notify your college’s financial aid office to tell them. The 20/21 FAFSA asked for 2018 income and the new 21/22 FAFSA that will be released October 1, 2020 will ask for 2019 income. If your financial situation for 2020 will be lower, there is no way for the financial aid office to take that into consideration unless you notify them. They will likely have you fill out what is called a special circumstances form to report the change in income and then they can re-evaluate your financial aid offer based on this new information.

If you were helping your own child in the process of finding the right financial aid for college, what is the one thing you would tell him or her to do?

Start searching and applying for outside scholarships early in high school — preferably freshman year but at the very latest, the summer before their senior year. I would also encourage them to check out the average financial aid packages at the colleges they are interested in, along with the merit scholarships they offer, and focus on applying to colleges that have more aid to offer.

Can someone still be eligible for financial aid if they have already completed a bachelor’s degree, or even a master’s degree?

Once you complete a bachelor’s degree you are no longer eligible for Pell Grants. But in terms of student loans, those have lifetime limits. It depends on the total amount you have borrowed to date. For independent undergraduate students, the total maximum amount of direct student loans you can borrow is $57,500. If you have not met that maximum, you could still qualify for financial aid by filling out the FAFSA.

I have worked with graduate students and had my own experience as a graduate student. Provided you have not borrowed the maximum limit of direct student loans of $57,500, you can still fill out a FAFSA even if you have completed a master’s degree. This is typically done through direct student loans. Also, there are a ton of scholarships you can apply for as well — check directly with the academic department of the college you are attending, as they often have resources available for students.

Where can students and families find you?

You can find me at thefafsaguru.com.

Blog / Q+A: Financial Aid Expert
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