Financial Aid Advice from NIU
By Jane Jordan, Associate Director Student Financial Aid Office, Northern Illinois University
My best advice for a student or family concerned about costs is to reach out to a financial aid administrator at the college they are planning to attend. Have your most recent student and parent federal tax returns in front of you, be prepared to take notes, have your list of questions handy and be situated with the college's financial aid website open for quick navigation. Don't worry even if you are not sure what to ask. I will provide some pointers but trust us to lead the conversation. Our mission is educating you on options for paying for college expenses and we welcome the opportunity to visit with you.
The best place to start is always at the beginning so ask that your FAFSA application be reviewed with you. Make sure tax information and the number of family members in the household and those attending college was reported correctly. It is not unusual for household size to be misreported so don’t shy away from having this conversation.
The next main topic should be to explore whether you have any special circumstances that would warrant a reevaluation of your financial aid package. Be prepared to discuss any recent changes to your family's financial situation. Alert staff if your parent's federal tax return reports a conversion from a regular IRA to a Roth IRA. If your family has expenses such as elementary or secondary school tuition, unusually high child care or dependent care costs, or medical, dental, or nursing home expenses not covered by insurance it would be appropriate to ask if the college will take these expenses into consideration. In the case of a parent attending college, ask if your parent would qualify to be included as a family member in college on your FAFSA.
A frequent question from families that I get at Northern Illinois University, relates to step-parents. The custodial parent has remarried and wants to appeal having to use the step-parent's income when determining financial aid eligibility. It is important to note that the step-parent is part of the new family unit and their information must be used. Colleges are also unable to consider appeals based on vacation expenses, credit card debt, or utility expenses for example.
Budgeting for affordability is more than just a catchy phrase for many students and their families. Communicate to your financial aid administrator if you wish to live a modest lifestyle while at college. Ask what recommendations they would make to assure you keep expenses as low as possible. Lifestyle choices can make a significant difference in costs so be prepared to consider the options they may present. While the thought of a single room in the most expensive residence hall may be appealing, roommates in a modest hall may mean the difference in being able to afford a particular college.
Become knowledgeable about the resources available to assist with college expenses. Ask that funding options such as grants, loans, and scholarships be fully explained along with all application procedures and deadlines. Of particular interest to parents is the Parent PLUS Loan. Many parents find the PLUS Loan to be a great resource for meeting college expenses. On-campus employment opportunities should be discussed if you hope to work while at college. Together, work out a budget that takes into consideration your estimated costs and financial resources and inquire about payment plan options for the difference.
Reaching out to your financial aid administrator may make the difference between simply imagining college and actually becoming a member of the incoming class. Best wishes to all.
Jane Jordan is the Associate Director of Student Financial Aid for Northern Illinois University. She has been a finanical aid professional since 1998 and is a NIU Class of 1978 graduate.
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