5 financial aid mistakes to avoid when entering college

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Most colleges will start back in the next few weeks. Showing up on campus and discovering that you still owe tuition can be nerve-wracking. I’ve worked in financial aid for six years, five years at UCLA, and I’d like to help you get around this fear. Here are five common mistakes to avoid:

1. Forgetting to accept all the tools you want to use

In most cases, you have to say you want the grants and grants that your college has offered before they are applied to your student account. Some colleges will allow what is known as passive acceptance; if you don’t do anything, they’ll assume you’ll take everything they’ve offered you. Most schools, especially when it comes to student loans, will require you to want the money offered.

When it comes to student loans, you usually have to decide whether you want to accept all, some, or none of what has been offered. If you say no to your loans, you can change your mind later. In fact, as long as you remain enrolled, you can take out your loans at any time during the academic year.

If you accept all your loans and realize you don’t need them, you have up to 120 days after your loans are paid out to adjust them. But remember, if the loans covered tuition or other costs, or if you received money from your school to help pay for living expenses, you’ll have to repay it if you reduce or cancel a loan.

2. Forgot to fill out loan documents

I’d love to say “don’t take out loans,” but the sad reality is that they are a necessity for many of us. So if you are taking out loans, make sure they are not delayed due to missed paperwork.

Once you accept your loans through the student portal your school uses, loan documents must be completed. You must complete a master’s promissory note (MPN) for federally subsidized and unsubsidized loans. For all Parent PLUS loans, your parents must complete a separate application and their own MPN. The MPN is your promise to repay the loans and the interest on them. You must also complete admission loan tutoring. This is usually a short online course that explains what concerns you as a borrower.

3. Dropping a Class and Losing Financial Aid

Many new students misunderstand the interaction between the number of classes or credits they take and the amount of financial support they receive. Most financial aid programs award different amounts to students based on the number of credits they take up. For example, if you are enrolled full-time (12 or more credits in most schools) and qualify for a Pell Grant — available to those in financial need — you will receive a maximum of $6,895 for the year based on your expected family contribution from your FAFSA. This is usually spread over your two semesters. If you withdraw only 6 credits, you will get a maximum of $3,448.

Colleges have a so-called census date, where they check how many classes and the total number of credits each student is enrolled in. This date is usually a few weeks into the semester. You could lose financial aid if, for example, you dropped a class and didn’t enroll for 9 credits until that date rolls around. If you have already received money to help pay for living expenses, you may have to pay some of that money back to your school. It’s best to find out when this date is and make sure you’re enrolled in the number of credits you need so you don’t accidentally lose help for the semester.

4. Losing a Scholarship Because Your GPA Dropped

You worked hard to get a scholarship, right? Well, you’ll probably have to keep working hard for it. Most scholarships have a minimum GPA to hold in order to maintain the scholarship. If your GPA falls below that level, you could lose that money. Make sure you know where to keep your GPA to keep your scholarships. If something unexpected happens, such as a family emergency or health crisis, and it means your GPA drops, contact your financial aid office and see if you can appeal to keep the prize.

5. Figuring Out What Your Financial Aid Return Will Bring In

Financial aid rarely brings in enough money to cover all your school expenses, especially for low-income students. It’s a frustrating reality. If you’re lucky enough to get money to help with books and living expenses after tuition is covered, you’ll have to decide what expenses to cover with that money.

Usually, financial aid is split over your two semesters, you pay tuition and fees, and whatever is left over is paid out to you. This money is intended to help with books and other teaching materials, living expenses, transportation costs to and from school, and other essential expenses. You’re likely to get less financial aid back than your total expenses, so it’s worth figuring out what your financial aid repayment will cover and how you’ll pay for everything else. If you have childcare costs, you can even see if your school is increasing your financial aid budget to cover those costs.

By making sure everything is taken care of for you, you can ensure that your first weeks in college are focused on teaching, studying and getting a job or family responsibilities and meeting new people, and not standing in line at the financial auxiliary office.

Have a nice year!

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