Common financial aid mistakes and advice

Soaring student debt, it’s a hot topic. Presidential candidates are talking about it and that’s because the average debt of a senior graduating from college is nearly $38,000. Student loan debt in 2020 is now $1.56 trillion in the United States. That figure is even more frightening since many families are able to send their children to state universities and incur no debt at all, so for the average debt to be $35,000+ that means that there are thousands of students graduating with over $100,000 in loans.

Yes, it’s true the financial aid forms can be intimidating, but here are a few tips to help you avoid the most common mistakes.

  1. Not filling out the FAFSA. The FAFSA is the trigger to financial aid. It may not be surprising, but the single biggest mistake is not filling out the forms because you assume you won’t receive any aid.

Scholarship Advisor ( conducted a survey among families with high school seniors and it found that 53 percent of eligible families did not bother applying for aid through the FAFSA. This can be a very costly misconception.

Many institutions, especially private colleges and universities with the highest price tags, offer generous merit-based aid. These packages aren’t based on financial need, but rather on talent and future potential for impact on the college campus. Many schools award these automatically based on GPA, rank in class, test scores, etc.  while some schools require students to complete scholarship applications.

  1. Careless errors and omissions. It has been reported that over 80 percent of submitted FAFSAs contain at least one error. One example is that money in a retirement account WON’T count against you, but money in a checking account WILL. This difference can obviously have a huge impact on your final EFC – Expected Family Contribution. Also, make sure to fill in all the fields of the form. If a question doesn’t apply to you, fill in with a “0” or “not applicable.”
  2. The FAFSA is a student form. Even though parents are typically filling out the form, the questions are directed to the students. Keep in mind that the CSS Profile, an additional financial aid form that is required by many private colleges and universities, is directed to the parents.

One of my favorite books that comes out each year around this time is: Princeton Review’s Paying for College – Everything you need to maximize Financial Aid and Afford College” by Kalman Chany, a nationally recognized college funding expert. In the recently released 2021 edition, Chany reports that in 2019, roughly 39% of high school graduates failed to complete the FAFSA. Chany’s advice applies the strategic planning techniques traditionally used by tax accountants to the world of financial aid. His recommendations, all which are legal, take into account year-to-year changes in both the aid application forms and the formulas used to determine aid offers. This year’s edition even offers guidance on dealing with Covid-19 college funding issues.

Additional financial aid resources:

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;