Blog Post | October 18, 2018

10 Key Tips and Tools for Helping Students Understand Financial Aid

This post originally appeared on the National College Access Network (NCAN) blog.

By Diane Cheng, Research Director at The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), and Erica Rose, Senior Director of Programs, Massachusetts, at uAspire

Affordability is a key issue for many students and families when choosing which colleges to apply to and attend, but the financial aid process can seem overwhelming. At the recent NCAN conference in Pittsburgh, TICAS and uAspire shared specific ways that counselors can help students and families approach the issue of college affordability and understand their financial aid options.

Here are a few of the tips and tools we shared:

  1. The Financial Aid Toolkit from the U.S. Department of Education is an online “one-stop shop” for counselors, with information about financial aid and a searchable database of resources – including resources in Spanish and information for parents.
  2. To help decide where to apply, students and families can use the Education Department’s College Scorecard, an online college comparison tool with data on costs, graduation rates, debt, post-college earnings, and more.
  3. To look past sticker price and get early, individualized estimates of financial aid, students can use net price calculators. These online tools are required to be on almost all college websites, and can help students start thinking about affordability early in their college search.
  4. Students and parents can now fill out the FAFSA on their phones, using or the myStudentAid mobile app. However, certain functionality is only available on and not currently available on the mobile app (e.g., access for undocumented parents who can’t get an FSA ID, and students’ ability to view their Student Aid Report or make corrections to their FAFSA).
  5. Since students can now start filling out the FAFSA on Oct. 1 each year, they should start building college lists during their junior year. Those lists should include colleges that students know they have a good chance of being accepted to and can afford. Students should also fight the urge to make a deposit before receiving and reviewing all award letters – wait until National College Decision Day (May 1)!
  6. When filling out the FAFSA, students and parents should use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to electronically transfer their tax data into the FAFSA. This tool helps simplify and shorten the FAFSA process as well as reduce how much documentation students have to provide if they are selected for verification.
  7. Students are not done with the financial aid process after they complete the FAFSA! Some will be selected for verification and required to submit additional documentation to colleges before they can receive financial aid. Counselors can help by having students request IRS documentation early (tax transcripts if they or their parents filed taxes, and verification of non-filing if they didn’t file taxes), making sure they keep an eye out for verification, and reassuring them that being selected doesn’t mean they did anything wrong!
  8. Our research has found that many financial aid award letters are inconsistent, confusing, or misleading to students. Counselors can help by providing a glossary of terms, analyzing and comparing award letters with students and families, and brokering communication with colleges. See more tips here.
  9. When reviewing estimated bills, students should consider savings, tuition payment plans, summer work, and outside scholarships before considering loans. If they need to borrow, they should turn to federal loans first, which guarantee consumer protections and repayment options that private loans do not.
  10. For information about student loans, check out TICAS’ resources on and the Education Department’s resources on and YouTube. The Education Department also offers an online repayment estimator that can help students see how expected borrowing translates into monthly payments and understand the range of repayment plans available for federal student loans (including some plans where payments can be as low as $0).

For more tips, see our handout from the conference.