Financial aid office
Story Financial Aid

Six Common Misconceptions About Financial Aid

Michelle Baik

There’s a lot of confusion about how much money is available for students who need it. The CSU’s director of financial aid explains what students and parents need to know.

Financial aid office

If you're confused about financial aid, start by talking to a campus financial aid office. Photo courtesy of Cal Poly Pomona​​


​​​​​​No one would argue that paying for college is a major concern for many students and their families. And when faced with the financial aid application process, they may feel even more intimidated.

Things can get more confusing when there are changes to the process, as there are this year.  "Although this time, change is good​," says Dean Kulju, director of financial aid at the California State University, Chancellor's Office.

Starting with the 2017-18 school year, there are two major changes to the
Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the form that all students need to complete, and the CA Dream Act Application (CADA), the form that AB540 students who are undocumented must complete, to be considered for financial aid. This year the application period will start three months earlier, on October 1, 2016. 

The second change is that the FAFSA and CADA will now use income data from 2015; this means that students who use their parents' income data won't have to wait until their parents file their current year's taxes to complete the form.

With the opening date for the application just a month away, we asked Kulju to clear up confusion about common myths about FAFSA, financial aid, student debt and more:

 "College is too expensive; I can't afford it."

"The average CSU undergraduate student who applies for financial aid receives $7,400 in grants and scholarships," explains Kulju, who has 28 years of experience working in financial aid in higher education. In fact, about 61 percent of all CSU undergraduate students have their tuition and fees fully covered by grants or waivers, making college more affordable.

 "There's only a limited amount of financial aid available."

While it is true that there's not an unlimited amount of aid, 80 percent, or 365,000, CSU students receive some form of financial aid—an amount that totals over $4 billion. The CSU also provides more than $650 million in State University Grants (SUG); these CSU-administered need-based awards are awarded to eligible students to cover tuition fees and do not need to be paid back. 

 "I'll graduate with too much student loan debt."

More than half of the CSU students who earn a bachelor's degree graduate with zero student loan debt. For those who do leave school with loans still to pay, the average amount is $14,388, nearly half the national average of $28,950, says Kulju.

 "Applying for financial aid is so complicated."

"The application is free, but it does require your time to complete it," agrees Kulju. Though the time it takes to fill out the FAFSA or CADA varies, the application can be finished more quickly if you have all the documents you need when you start. For example, students (and parents, if you're using your parents' income and tax information) should have their identification information, current bank statements, and tax information handy before beginning the application.

High schools, local colleges and
CSU campuses also offer financial aid workshops that help students and parents fill out the application and learn about what documents and information are needed. Organizations such as Cash for College provide guidance as well.

After the application is submitted, you'll want to keep an eye on your email; the campus you're attending may ask you to send more information or supplementary documents. "Stay on top of things and respond to any requests from the campus for additional information," Kulju stresses.

 "I missed the March 2 deadline for the FAFSA/CADA. It's too late."

March 2 is the priority deadline to submit the FAFSA or CADA. If you submit your application after that, you will be considered for whatever aid is still available, both at the campus you're planning to attend and through federal programs. Some grants and loans may be available after the priority deadline has passed, so students should still definitely apply for aid. 

 "I/My parents make too much money, so I won't qualify for financial aid."

"Don't rule yourself out," says Kulju. For example, families making up to $156,000 may qualify for the Middle Class Scholarship program, which covers a portion of tuition fees.

If there's one thing Kulju stresses it's that students and parents should do all they can to take advantage of financial aid available at the CSU: "The application is free and easier than ever," he notes. "Don't miss out on possible funding to help you with your college expenses."

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