Yes, you want to see the dorms, the library and the student union, but you should add the financial aid office to your list for the campus tour.
It’s an essential stop to get your financial aid questions answered — but you’ll need to do more than simply show up.
That’s what Certified Financial Planner Alexandra Wilson discovered when she accompanied her boyfriend to his college financial aid office. At 28 years old, he was returning to school to continue his undergraduate studies and wanted to consider his options for financial assistance.
Wilson had plenty of experience working with her own clients who were dealing with student loan debt. So despite the fact that she was 10 years out of school, she felt confident that she knew what to expect.
“I was shocked at the experience we had going into the financial aid office,” she said. “It’s a kiosk and there’s someone — younger than him — telling him just click, click, click, and not explaining anything to him.”
Her less-than-human experience helped her understand why her own clients kept telling her they didn’t understand any of the financial aid information she was sharing with them.
The average undergraduate took out more than $4,400 in federal student loans for the 2018-19 school year. That’s a lot of money depending on a few clicks — especially for a student taking a college tour without a CFP by their side.
During your meeting with the financial aid officer, be sure to get their contact info — full name, email address and direct phone number — so you can reach them more quickly for follow-up questions.
“If an 18-year-old right out of high school doesn’t have their parents, they’re just taking what this other peer of theirs is saying as the truth,” Wilson said. “That could be really dangerous.”
“Push hard for a sit-down appointment,” Wilson said. And if anyone tries to pressure you into just clicking through a kiosk screen at the financial aid office? “I would take a step back and be like, ‘No, I want to sit down in an office with someone, even if it means I have to come back tomorrow.’”
So you know you need the appointment — but what do you ask once you sit down? That’s where we come, with the eight essential questions to ask when you meet with a financial aid adviser.
8 Financial Aid Questions to Ask During Your Campus Tour
Scheduling a campus tour stop at the financial aid office might not be as exciting as spending time in the quad or as inspiring as checking out the biology lab, but you’ll thank yourself for doing it later. We’ve compiled eight essential questions you need to ask to help you avoid student loan debt.
1. What Does Your Ideal Student Look Like?
This might seem like a softball question, but asking what the college values in a student could help you discover opportunities for money outside of loans.
Most colleges are seeking well-rounded students who demonstrate interests outside of schoolwork and may offer assistance to those who excel in a sport, activity or volunteer work, according to Amy Irvine, a Certified Financial Planner and founder of Rooted Planning Group
“Ask, ‘What does an ideal student look like, and what would they be eligible for in grants and scholarships?’” she said.
2. What’s Your Priority Deadline for the FAFSA?
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is essential if you’re applying for financial aid. The opening date each year is Oct. 1, but each college has its own deadline.
But waiting until the last minute to submit the form means you’ll be the last to receive consideration. The “priority” deadline for your school may be just a few days after the FAFSA opens, so it pays to ask, said Marla Lewis, financial aid associate director at the University of North Florida.
Since you’re using tax data that’s more than a year old to fill out the FAFSA form, your family’s financial situation might change. If it does, inform your school’s financial aid office.
Some of the colleges stop reviewing applications only three or four days after the FAFSA form becomes available, she said. “That’s how quickly the money runs out.”
Also ask about deadlines for any additional forms you’ll need to submit to qualify for financial aid — some colleges also require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile in addition to their own in-house applications, which are typically available on the university website.
3. What Merit-Based Scholarships Can I Qualify For?
If you don’t qualify for need-based financial aid, merit-based scholarships are your best way to avoid student loan debt.
But even if you qualify for subsidized student loans (which don’t accrue interest while you’re in school), every scholarship you qualify for is additional money for college that you don’t need to pay back.
And the time to ask about scholarships is before you receive your acceptance letter, according to Lewis.
“If you haven’t applied when you’ve been admitted, then I’m assuming you don’t need it,” she said.
During the meeting, it’s essential to ask how much the average merit-based scholarship is to help you anticipate its impact on your tuition bill.
And don’t assume you can’t qualify if you’re not graduating at the top of your class, Irvine advised.
“[Ask] what are the SAT requirements, what are the GPA requirements?” she said. “Because maybe you’re only three points off from something, and you could re-sit for the SATs.”
4. What Additional Fees Are Associated With My Major?
Among the hidden costs of college you should ask the financial aid office about is the fees associated with your major. Some require expensive equipment (like aviation) or pricy materials you’ll need to buy separately (like art supplies).
And although you may have an idea of your budget for freshman year, you’ll want to ask about upperclassmen credit hour costs (which are often higher to cover the expense of smaller classes).
Otherwise, you may find your financial aid package coming up short as you progress through your college career.
5. What Is It Going to Cost Me to Live Here?
One campus may start to look like another if you go on enough tours, but getting specific information about the cost of living is particularly important if you’re moving away from home for the first time.
“If you’re not familiar with the area, the financial aid officer is a great person to talk to and be like, ‘What is it going to cost me to live here?’” Wilson said. “‘Am I going to have to take out more student loans?’”
A few questions to include on your list:
- What are the typical cost of meal plans and what does the average student use?
- Is cooking allowed in the dorms? Is there a community kitchen? Where can you buy food?
- If you aren’t bringing a car, what are the average costs for public transportation? What geographic area does public transportation cover and what is its hours?
- What is the cost of a movie ticket (or whatever entertainment you prefer)?
Knowing the answers to such questions can help you budget for food costs, decide if you can reasonably access an off-campus job and adjust for the cost-of-living difference between your hometown and college community.
6. What’s the Average Student Loan Debt for Graduates in My Major?
By using platforms like the College Scorecard, you can discover how much student loan debt the average student in your major graduates with compared to first-year salaries.
Knowing your first-year salary as a teacher may be helpful, but the first-year salary for a doctor might not be indicative of future earnings.
By meeting with the financial aid office, you can drill down to specifics, like graduate’s five- or 10-year average earnings, who’s hiring them and how long it’s taking them to pay off debt.
The financial aid officer you meet with may not have the information immediately at their fingertips, but you should follow up with them to get an idea of how likely a job in your major will pay off the student loans.
7. What If I Accept More Student Loan Money Than I Need?
You may be worried about not getting enough financial aid to pay for college. But what if you get too much?
That’s an important question to ask, Wilson said, noting that she once had a client who graduated with $20,000 leftover in student loans.
“They’d already accrued several thousand dollars in interest,” she said. “The loans had origination fees for the extra loans they’d taken out, and they could have avoided those if they had just used the extra each year.”
Your college will receive your student loan or scholarship money first to cover tuition and fees. It will issue a check at the start of the semester for any money that’s left over.
So what should you ask the financial aid office?
“What if I have $5,000 leftover [at the end of the year], and I want to send it to pay off student loans,” she said. ““How can I pay back a portion of it… or do I just take out less loans next time?”
8. How Much Will It Cost to Pursue My Interests?
This is usually the fun part of the campus tour: when you get to learn about all the fun stuff you can be a part of. Join a fraternity or sorority! Play in the marching band! Study abroad!
But all those activities cost money — sometimes thousands of dollars — and student loans don’t cover the expenses.
It doesn’t mean you’ll need to live a lonely life confined to the cinder block walls of your dorm room. You just need to ask the financial aid office what your options are for covering the costs.
Wilson said she learned that the hard way during her own college experience — in an effort to avoid student loans, she didn’t investigate study abroad options.
“I always thought it was too expensive, and then after the fact I realized there were all these scholarships that could have almost paid my way to go,” she said.
Wilson said in retrospect, she wishes she had met face-to-face with a financial aid officer to ask questions and get the most bang for her buck.
Even if you don’t need to take out student loans, the financial aid office should be a stop on everyone’s campus tour. Talking with them — and doing your own additional research — can help you discover thousands of dollars that won’t have to come out of your pocket.
“Make this your part-time job for a little bit.” Wilson said. “There’s free money on the table you’re not taking.”
And there’s no question about it: Finding free money is a smart move.
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder. Read her bio and other work here, then catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln.