Navigating Financial Aid

Posted on by Dean Furda

You’re starting your college search. It’s never too early to start thinking about financial aid.

Understanding financial aid policy and being in control of the financial aid process will be very helpful as you continue your education beyond high school. And, as you begin or continue your personal evaluation of the 5Is and 4Cs, my framework for your college search, you will notice that financial considerations inform your self-assessment, college search, and application process. Consider how finances play a part in your life story. How might economic concerns affect your Identity or your Inspiration? Financial aid policies impact the 4Cs as well. For example, at Penn, our founder Benjamin Franklin’s commitment to access—bringing the brightest students to campus regardless of their ability to pay—is the foundation for Penn’s enduring and substantial commitment to financial aid. Your potential financial aid packages will also inform your alignment with the colleges you are considering. This may ultimately be one of your priorities as you not only approach the admissions process but also consider your admit letters in the spring.

Arm yourself with the information you need to start and successfully continue your financial aid journey. Penn’s Student Financial Services shares financial aid information and tips here. Remember that while this is a challenging process, it is also a rewarding one (learn why as you read on…).

Getting Started [Freshman to Junior Year] –

- As soon as you start thinking about college, talk to your family about financial aid. It’s a big investment for the whole family.  
- Think about ways to help pay for college. Start saving; if you are able, take a summer job.  
- Talk to the financial aid officers at schools that interest you. Financial aid professionals will be able to speak to your personal financial situation.  
- Remember: Don’t let a sticker price stop you from considering a school because there is a lot of financial aid available. It’s important to look at a school for personal, academic, and extracurricular fit.

Apply for Financial Aid [Senior Year] –

- Apply for federal aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
- Fill out institutional financial aid applications.  
- Apply for outside scholarships (such as local or community scholarships).  
- Remember: Be proactive! Apply for as many outside or community scholarships as you can. Even small scholarships add up.  
- Remember: If your family will use loans to pay for college, it’s important to keep borrowing to a minimum. Just because you can borrow the maximum amount available does not mean you should borrow this amount.  
- Remember: College students apply for Financial Aid every year; stay in touch with financial aid professionals at your school and your parents for help with this annual process.

Helpful Definitions:

Need-based Aid: Financial aid based strictly on your family’s financial need, which is determined through financial aid applications. / Merit-based Aid: Financial aid based on students’ academic or other ability (academic, artistic, athletic) as well as what schools are looking for in their student pool.
[Schools might use one or both of these forms of aid. For example, it is an agreement among Ivy League schools to provide only need-based aid. Be sure to ask each school that interests you.]

Need-blind: Students’ ability to pay will not be part of the application process. / Need-aware: This indicates a limited financial aid pool that admissions offices are aware of.

Grants and Scholarships: Aid that students do not have to pay back.

Loans: Borrowed monies that students pay back. Loans are typically provided by the federal government and can be subsidized or unsubsidized.

Net Price Calculator: An institution-specific estimate of your financial aid package.

Work-study job: As part of a financial aid package, on-campus and off-campus work-study jobs allow students to apply their earnings to college expenses.

(Most Importantly) The Perks of Financial Aid:

1. Navigating the process increases your financial literacy. You will be in control of your economic situation and knowledgeable about financial opportunities.

2. Open communication lines with your family and mentors. Talking about financial aid gives you the opportunity to discuss things that matter to you and your family.

3. You will have the opportunity to take on a work-study job. Work in an office, lab, library or community space that is important to you. Time management will become second nature. Learn skills, and ascend the professional ladder.  In addition, research shows that college students who participate in work-study jobs are more likely to graduate than students who do not participate.

4. Help finance your college education. You are making a valuable contribution to your college tuition.

Moving forward, remember to make use of each school’s Net Price Calculator, the expertise of financial aid offices, meetings with your college counselor or a community based organization, and financial tools like Cash Course. Remember, as a high school student, you have the knowledge and ability to navigate the financial aid process successfully. Admissions and financial aid offices are excited to work with you.


*PAGE 217
refers to the always legendary and occasionally dreaded essay which was once a mainstay of the University of Pennsylvania application. The question read as follows: “You have just finished your three hundred page autobiography. Please submit page 217.”

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