You Don’t Have to Be an Expert to Help Families Afford College

Now more than ever, middle class families need help figuring out how they can afford college. With many families having to do more with less, knowing the ins and out of the financial aid system can be key to helping them cut college costs.

A high school counselor may be the first person families turn to for help. But a survey by the College Board National Office for School Counselor Advocacy (NOSCA) noted that this is an area where most counselors feel they lack expertise—with good reason. Rules are frequently changing, and the way aid is calculated varies from school to school.

While financial aid is a complicated process, there are a few simple steps counselors can encourage families to take to put college within their financial reach.

Focus on School Over Private Scholarships

Private scholarships tend to be smaller, typically less than $2000. If students have limited time, it’s best to focus on working toward the large scholarships offered by colleges and universities. Part of that means crafting a list of schools that looks beyond the advertised price tag. Sometimes private or out-of-state schools are cheaper than state schools when you factor in the scholarship money a student qualifies for. Encourage families to do some research before they commit to a list or eliminate schools based on advertised tuition.

Retake the ACT or SAT

Maybe a student has a score they’re happy with that will get them into their dream school. Great! But can they afford that school? Scoring just two points higher on a test may be all they need to do to earn $10,000 more in scholarships. Some schools list the scores students’ need to earn rewards right on their web sites. Families can see for themselves how a modest increase can make a huge difference.

Consider the EFC

The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) varies from school to school, which impacts a family’s potential financial aid. That’s because not all schools use the same formula. Some colleges, for example, may count home equity, while others may not. Encourage families to investigate how schools compute their EFC to eliminate surprises down the road.

Plan Ahead for the FAFSA

The most important steps families can take in filling out the FAFSA happen before they ever sit down to complete the form. There are strategies families can take years before their student’s junior year in high school that can help them reduce their EFC. Consulting with a local financial aid expert may help them reduce their EFC and increase their eligibility for aid.

Follow Directions

Some schools require students to complete a CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA. Others may require filing through the Institutional Documentation Service (IDOC). Encourage families to stay on top of this and make sure they complete the forms correctly and in a timely manner. Failing to do so could result in them losing out on thousands of dollars.

Update the FAFSA If Circumstances Change

Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s possible a family’s financial or health circumstances could change once they complete the FAFSA. Make sure families are aware that they can update their information if a parent loses a job or the family incurs unexpected medical expenses.

List a State School First

It may sound crazy, but if a family doesn’t list a state school first on their FAFSA, they may miss out on state aid. Families should list a state school first to make sure they see state eligible grant money on award letters.

Be Savvy About Small Businesses

If a family owns a small business, encourage them to consult an expert about how to manage their assets. A simple step like keeping most of their assets in their business rather than a private account can make a huge difference in terms of financial aid awards.

Use the IRS Data Retrieval System

Families need to use precise spelling and wording for this system to work accurately, but that’s a small price to pay for the benefits they’ll receive. Families who use this system will receive their award letters sooner and will be less likely to need verification from schools.

Remember, Nothing Is Final

Financial aid awards can be negotiated. Receiving a better offer from a similar school, or a change in financial or health status in the family are all valid reasons to appeal a financial aid award. Encourage families to look into a school’s process for appeal and have them go through the proper channels to make a request before eliminating a school a student wants to attend.

Call in the Experts

Many high schools bring in experts to host free financial aid workshops for students and their families. This can be a great tool to fill in the knowledge gaps for college-bound students and their families. If you choose experts who also offer private consultations on a sliding scale, parents will have an affordable place to turn when they need some extra help.

A few smart tips can go a long way to helping families make college more affordable. College counselors don’t have to have all the answers, but they can certainly point students and their families in the right direction.

Shane Cole is an advisor for My College Planning Team ( in the Chicago area.  He is also a counselor at Addison Trail High School. He has helped families from diverse economic backgrounds successfully navigate the college application, financial aid and scholarship processes.