Financial Aid for College – 2024

The Foundation of the Financial Aid Process

If you’re looking for financial aid for college, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA, is most likely the place to start.  This form, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, is used to gather information about prospective student and their family and their finances to determine their eligibility for federal student aid.

The FAFSA is usually available on October 1 of the year prior to the year in which any financial aid award would be used.  However, due to the extensive changes resulting from the FAFSA Simplification Act, the opening date for the FAFSA in 2023 will be December 1.

How Does This Affect Me?

Whether this change in date affects you and how it affects you depends on your situation.

If you are applying to schools as a freshman, and you were considering Early Decision or Early Action, AND you will need financial aid to attend your school of choice, you may have to wait longer for a financial aid package compared to earlier years.  In past years, the deadline for financial aid applications for Early Decision applicants was as early as November 1 or November 15.  And, many Early Decision and Early Action notification dates are in December.  This year you may find that notification dates have been pushed later, or you may find that financial aid information is not available at the same time as admissions offers.

What Should You Take into Account?

If you are applying for financial aid as a returning student, and you are dependent on federal financial aid, you have a couple of things to consider.  The methodology behind the FAFSA calculations is changing.  These changes may result in changes to your ability to qualify for Pell Grants or subsidized student loans.  So, it is a good idea to complete your FAFSA as soon as possible after it opens.  While you can’t change the outcome of these calculations, the sooner you know where you stand with the new FAFSA methodology, the sooner you can work on your strategy to pay for college.

If you are applying for financial aid as a returning student, and you are dependent on financial aid from your school, and your school requires the FAFSA, you will still want to complete the FAFSA as early as possible once it opens.  Schools do run out of financial aid funds, and the sooner you complete the application for financial aid, the better chance you may have of being awarded need-based financial aid if you qualify.

The Changes in the FAFSA

The intention of Congress when passing the FAFSA Simplification Act was to – simplify the FAFSA!  Many students who would have qualified for financial aid never completed the FAFSA due to its complexity.  The new FAFSA will have fewer questions and will be able to rely more directly on your tax returns which reduces the amount of information that you need to enter.

However, there are other changes as well.  For example, rather than receiving an Expected Family Contribution when completing the FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Index.  Assets that need to be reported have changed for some people, such as business owners.  And there will be some changes in what needs to be reported as income for some people.

Preparing for These Changes

This FAFSA season will be different.  It will be critical to pay very close attention to the questions and to provide the information requested.  You won’t be able to assume that they’re asking for the same information that you have provided in past years.

This FAFSA will be new for everyone.  You may need to exercise patience as you work with schools, scholarship programs, and others who rely on the FAFSA to award financial aid.

Schools are Adjusting Deadlines

Be sure to research any timelines that apply to you.  Schools are adjusting their deadlines for financial aid applications.  In some cases, these new deadlines will give you a smaller window to apply between the date the FAFSA opens and the deadline.

Be aware that you may have to make some decisions in a relatively short timeframe.  While most financial aid packages from schools are subject to change each year based on your family’s evolving circumstances, these FAFSA changes may result in unexpected changes.

This article is intended to be educational and thought-provoking rather than financial advice.  When we work together in a financial planning engagement, we discuss your unique personal situation and your unique goals.  During our financial planning process, we examine these factors and many others to determine appropriate financial strategies for YOU.


What is the purpose of these publications? They aim to get readers to buy them or click on a headline. 

Do they have any skin in the game regarding your student’s success? Absolutely not.

Here are some of the criteria the ranking magazine editions use:

  • Average six-year graduation rate
  • Faculty compensation
  • Student-Faculty ratio
  • Percent of Full-time and Part-time faculty with a terminal degree in their field
  • Cutting edge facilities
  • Average SAT scores

The first factor can give you an idea of how well the school retains its students until graduation. On the other hand, if you think you can only afford four years of undergraduate education, this statistic isn’t very helpful.

I suppose that faculty compensation may give you an idea of how highly the school values its faculty. It does not give you an idea of how the school values its student body. And in my discussions with faculty, they often cite other benefits such as access to research facilities and resources and colleagues and the caliber of the students rather than paychecks as the reason they stay with a particular university – not to mention tenure.

Student-to-faculty can be a measure of the number of professionals focused on your student in high school, where the sole purpose of an institution is to educate its students. However, in a university setting, the education of the students is not the sole purpose of each of those faculty members. Many of them are focused on research and may teach as few as a single class per semester, and teaching assistants may actually run those classes.

Certainly, you want your students’ professors and instructors to be well-informed and up-to-date on developments in their fields. However, what if your student is pursuing a degree in Artificial Intelligence? It is a relatively new field. And there are now quite a few schools with programs focused on artificial intelligence. But how many people with terminal degrees in Artificial Intelligence have decided to enter academia rather than the private sector? Or, let’s assume that the rankings consider a terminal degree in computer science sufficient to be a terminal degree for artificial intelligence programs. How many of those computer science professors have focused on artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analysis associated with machine learning, the legal and ethical ramifications of artificial intelligence, and the behavioral psychology and biases associated with artificial intelligence algorithms versus aspects of computer science that have been the bedrock of the computer science or applied math field for decades?

Or, have you ever taken a class where you’ve been quite sure that the professor has no real-world experience where real-world experience is critical? Research studies and experiments, and their published analyses, may not give students what they need to function in the real world. However, the magazine ranking algorithms don’t give weight to accomplishments or experience outside of academia.

There are at least a couple of factors to consider about cutting-edge facilities on a college campus. While some schools will tout their commitment to a particular field with a new shiny building or amenity, will it be available to your student? Many of these cutting-edge facilities are only available to researchers, graduate students, and, in some cases, companies who pay for access to the facility. And, while I’ve heard people say that a particular facility will put this school “on the map” for a given field, another school will have the newest, shiniest building or facility next year. 

Suppose your student is currently going through or has recently gone through the college admissions process. In that case, you probably know that many schools have become “test-optional,” meaning your student does not need to submit their standardized test scores if they don’t feel it will help their application. The test-optional school looks at the student’s application on a holistic basis rather than starting the filtering process based on test scores. Yet, the average standardized test scores still factor into the magazines’ college rankings. So, the magazines’ methodologies have not kept up with changes in the college landscape.

Another factor to consider is that these media company rankings are generally based on the schools, not the specific department or school within a university you may be considering. You don’t know if a particular department or school is having an outsize effect on the university’s statistics. Again, using just these factors listed above, perhaps nearly all of the professors in the art and engineering schools in a particular university have terminal degrees in their field. But what if, in the environmental science department, only a few have terminal degrees in their field? How do you know this from these magazine rankings? And what if your student is interested in environmental science? Does it matter? Or what if your student is interested in engineering, and you believe it does matter? The percentage of professors with terminal degrees in their field would look artificially low for the engineering school.

And lastly (for now at least), schools constantly move up and down these rankings. If you rely on these rankings, which are released annually, to choose a school, you could just hit on a year when there is an anomaly in the data. For instance, many factors are in flux from the pandemic – class size, faculty size, building projects, real estate acquisitions, etc. The last few years have caused many schools to re-evaluate how they deliver classes, where they want to focus their resources, and, in some cases, their entire mission statement. Just because a particular school shoots up or drops in the rankings may not reflect a baseline change at the school. It may reflect a change in their “competitors,” short-term or long-term economic conditions, or simply a blip in the data.

Ultimately, this time is all about your student. What is best for your student? Where will they thrive? This decision shouldn’t be about prestige. Prestige in a particular field can come and go. In fact, the whole field could come and go. And, if you think about it, you can probably name some schools that were very well-known 30 years ago but are nearly forgotten now. Choose according to the experience you believe your student will have at the particular school – not the experience a magazine editor would like to portray on their pages.

And no one will go back to the Something Something News and World Report edition from 2022 to see if your student’s school was the highest-ranked school 20 years – or even five years – from now. You have no control over those rankings – now or in 20 years. You could be lucky and choose a school that climbs those rankings over the next 20 years. Northeastern University is a great example. Or, you could be less likely to choose a school whose focus does not align with the ranking methodology of these media outlets and therefore declines. Whether the school rises or sinks in the ratings does not affect your student’s education and probably doesn’t matter in the long run. What matters is the formal and informal education your student gains during their college experience.

This article is intended to be educational and thought-provoking rather than financial advice.  When we work together in a financial planning engagement, we discuss your unique personal situation and your unique goals.  During our financial planning process, we examine these factors and many others to determine appropriate financial strategies for YOU.


Are you comfortable with the environment?

Do you need long outdoor hikes to unwind? If so, a school in a large city might not be for you. Do you thrive on the hustle and bustle and need many activities and events to choose from at any time? Then maybe a large university or a school in a large city is for you. Either way, try not to choose based on who you want to become rather than who you are. Your surroundings will change one way or another, but you have some control over what kind of environment you will call home for the next four years.

If you are looking at a very competitive school, consider the caliber of the students you’ll be with. On the one hand, you will be with like-minded individuals with similar interests. On the other hand, by definition, 50% of these people will be in the bottom half of the class. Many of these students, perhaps even you, have never had that experience. Can you handle not being the most intelligent person in class? Will you allow yourself to ask for help?

The flip side is choosing to attend a less selective school than average. Will you be challenged enough by the material, the instructors, and the other students? Will you be challenged to be your best self?

Following the last question, how competitive is the environment? Many of these schools are very competitive for admissions. However, they each have their own culture. And that culture might be super competitive even as a student at the school. Or, the culture may encourage sharing and helping others and not focus on curves and rankings. Or it may be somewhere in between. On that spectrum, where are you most comfortable?

Are you not sure what you want to study? Then maybe a large university with many options will work out better for you. College is the first time you can choose the vast majority of your classes, and there will be a wide range of choices. As you try new classes and meet new people, you may become interested in topics you have never considered. Many small schools focus on a few areas of study – such as business or design. However, if you develop a keen interest in a different subject your school does not offer, you may need to transfer to another college or university to pursue that newfound interest. On the other hand, a large university may already provide you with the option to pursue your new area of study. Transferring to another school often means you will take longer to graduate because some credits may not transfer.

Will you be comfortable with the ideology at the school? If you tend to be somewhat liberal or even very liberal in your views, will you be comfortable at a school that tends to be conservative? And the reverse applies as well. Do you tend to be outspoken about your points of view? Will that be permitted, celebrated, or even tolerated? And, even if you don’t tend to be outspoken about your views, will you be comfortable with how others express their views and to what extent expression of prevailing views and dissenting views are encouraged, promoted, or discouraged? Part of the college experience is learning from others and trying to understand other points of view. However, how the expression of those views is encouraged or tolerated will differ from school to school. 

This article is intended to be educational and thought-provoking rather than financial advice.  When we work together in a financial planning engagement, we discuss your unique personal situation and your unique goals.  During our financial planning process, we examine these factors and many others to determine appropriate financial strategies for YOU.