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Understanding the Financial Aid Process

Last updated on February 22, 2021

In my previous role as a high school counselor, and now as a financial aid counselor at Duke, I have seen the stress families face applying for college and not being able to afford the college of their choice. Now that I’m a parent of two young boys, everything has become much more real, and I can relate to families who find that figuring out how to pay for college is the most difficult part of the whole process. It can seem overwhelming, especially for first-generation students and parents. If you are feeling lost and confused with where to begin, you are not alone!

Let’s begin with the basics. Everyone’s financial situation is different, so it is key to know your specific financial circumstances in order to make the best choices for your family. Devising a strategy before your children start applying to college is important.

Does the early bird get the worm? 

When we bring a young one into the world the first thing we think about isn’t saving for their college education. Even though I work in a financial aid office, I can attest that was far from my mind when I became a parent. However, saving is an important place to start, and just like we save for a vacation or a new home, we should have a labeled piggy bank that we contribute to regularly for our children’s college. It is helpful to start early and think of college as an investment.

There are tools that can help make saving easier, like college savings plans or a prepaid tuition plan. These are tax-advantaged savings plans designed to encourage saving for future college costs. They are usually started by parents or family members when a child is young. However, even if college is only a few years in the future, now is still a great time to talk to a financial professional or research starting a college savings plan. My motto is it is never “too late” to start saving. I ask my parents and in-laws not to get the kids toys or games for Christmas and birthdays, and instead either give them experiences that will hopefully make memories or contribute to their college savings plans. This has worked well for our family, and the savings add up. It is never too late to start saving!

A conversation worth having

My boys are not yet old enough to start school, but that doesn’t mean I don’t talk to them about college. I want them to hear the word “college” consistently at their ages, and I want them to know that it is an option for them. When they are older, we will have more in-depth conversations about college and what kind of college would be a good fit. Often there is an emphasis on the right academic fit, but understanding which college is the appropriate financial fit is just as imperative. It’s a difficult conversation to have with ourselves as parents and with our kids, but it is necessary!

How do you access whether a school is a good financial fit for your family? Considering costs (both direct costs such as tuition, fees, room, and board, and indirect costs such as books and personal expenses) will be important. These costs can vary widely. Applying for financial aid should also be a part of your strategy. I’ll say more below about how to know how much financial aid you might receive from a school.

Cost and financial aid are sometimes the only two aspects of financial fit people consider, but the conversation is bigger than that. Family savings, summer jobs, smart budgeting, and even college credits earned through programs like Advanced Placement are great opportunities to offset college costs. Financial fit can be fluid and a lot can change over time. Often a family’s situation changes while a student is in high school. Your strategies for paying for college will be extremely individual, and they can make a huge impact on making college an affordable option for you.

Use the tools

Luckily, there are excellent tools to help you understand how much financial aid you might receive and what your total out-of-pocket costs might be at a given school (good news for those of us that are planners- and even for those that aren’t!) For an in-depth estimate, you can use a school’s Net Price Calculator. Every school is required to have a Net Price Calculator, and you can plug in information about your income and assets to get an estimate of what it would cost you to attend the school for a year. At Duke, we recommend using the “help” buttons to ensure you are entering the information correctly to produce the most accurate results.

For a quick, ballpark estimate of your cost, you can also use a school’s MyinTuition Quick College Estimator, if the school has this available. It doesn’t drill down and give you an exact number, but instead gives you a range of what your family may need to contribute. You only have to answer a handful of questions, and the calculator provides a good starting point to give you an idea.

Another useful tool would be individual schools’ websites. Schools put a lot of effort into their websites to be user-friendly and to communicate a lot of information out to students and parents. The website can answer many general questions about how the financial aid process works at that particular school. It will also answer whether a separate application is needed for merit scholarships, whether schools require the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA, and many other questions. The financial aid office also has experienced, supportive people to assist you and your family. If you have questions, ask! You are not in this alone.

Is my financial aid award final?

Let’s say you have applied to a school and have been accepted, and you have received your financial aid award. You may be wondering whether you can petition for additional aid or whether the school would be willing to adjust the award. The answer to this is… it depends! When you have filled out your original financial aid application, did you share all of the requested information? Has something changed since then with your family’s circumstances? If you received a very different financial aid offer from one school than from other, is it possible that you did not share all your information with every school? These are some things to ask yourself when you are applying for financial aid at any school, and these are questions we ask families at Duke. Duke does not match other offers and does not negotiate an offer; however, not all schools have the same policies. Schools will always go out with the best offer they can, and if you apply to and are accepted at Duke, we would love to make it a financial possibility for your family. If you have any questions, you should contact your school’s financial aid office.

Financing options

There are many different types of aid available. Whether you decide to take advantage of federal or state aid and scholarships, institutional grants, loans, work-study, or a combination, help is available. Yes, it will look different depending on your family’s financial circumstances, where you apply, and a student’s talents and abilities. The goal is for the school to be an affordable option for you and your family. Many schools also have a payment plan that families can sign up for to assist with the costs.

Just don’t let the sticker price scare you away. The college investment will likely be one of the biggest investments you ever make. The most important thing is that your college education helps you reach your goals personally and financially. Start saving early if you can, do your research, and reach out to your school if you have questions!

Laura Poole ( is an Assistant Director in The Karsh Office of Undergraduate Financial Support. As a Financial Aid Counselor at Duke, she is committed to support Duke’s promise to meet 100% of its undergraduate students’ demonstrated financial need. 

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