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3 Financial Aid Questions to Ask Before Applying to College

Kelsey Sheehy

Student loan debt is a top concern for parents of aspiring college students. But that concern often doesn't translate into planning, a recent survey finds.

In fact, while 85 percent of parents are worried about how student debt might affect their child in the future, nearly half of those surveyed said they won't weigh the cost when helping their child choose a college, according to Discover Student Loans. The financial services firm surveyed 1,000 parents with children ages 16 to 18 who plan to attend college.

But experts say cost must be part of the equation -- if not for parents, then for students.

"You cannot think about going to college today without thinking about how to pay for it," Russell Schaffer with Kaplan Test Prep said via email.

And students need to start thinking about it sooner rather than later. Kaplan encourages high school juniors going on campus tours to visit each school's financial aid office, Schaffer noted.

"Too many students don't connect with college financial aid officers until they get their first letter of award money and by that time college financial aid offices are being overwhelmed with appeals from other students and parents," he wrote. "Begin that relationship early. It will put a human face to your eventual application. You'll be more than a name and a financial statement."

[Find out what to ask about financial aid award letters.]

Knowing what questions to ask will help students and parents get the most out of that relationship. Below are three questions to help families get the conversation started.

1. How does the school's net price calculator work? Federal law requires all colleges to have a net price calculator on their website. The tool gives students an estimate of the cost to attend a given school based on the family's income and other personal data entered into the calculator. The estimate is only as good as the information entered, so students and parents should talk with colleges' financial aid offices to find out what information is needed.

[Learn why prospective students should use net price calculators.]

Families should also ask how detailed the school's calculator is -- some ask 10 questions, others ask as many as 50 -- and how the tool determines the estimate.

Net price calculators typically use historical financial aid data to estimate the cost for future students, but historical is a relative term, says Elizabeth Keuffel, director of financial aid at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.

"The data could be as old as 2012-2013," despite being updated at the start of 2014, Keuffel says. "The student could well be thinking of enrolling in 2015-2016."

Net price calculators that use the most recent data available turn out a more accurate picture of the cost for prospective students, the Institute for College Access and Success notes.

2. How much aid do upperclassmen receive, on average? Colleges often try to entice students to enroll by loading financial aid awards for incoming freshman with grants and scholarships that are only guaranteed for one year, says financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com.

This practice is called front-loading, and roughly half of all colleges use it, Kantrowitz says.

"Front-loading of grants causes the net price to be lower during the freshman year than during subsequent years," he says.

Asking about the average financial aid awards for sophomores and juniors will help students estimate the entire cost of their degree, which typically takes students four to six years to earn.

[Get definitions for common -- and often confusing -- financial aid terms.]

3. Are there programs available to help offset the cost? Most states have grant programs to help students pay for college. Unfortunately, many students either don't know they exist or are unsure of how to take advantage of the funds. Financial aid counselors can help with that, says Nirav Mehta, associate director of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

New Jersey, for example, has an equal opportunity fund that helps low-income students pay for college.

"Every state has these types of programs, and thus, it becomes critical for students to ask about them before applying," Mehta said via email. "The earlier, the better."

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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