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The arrival of new students to colleges and universities each August is accompanied by a renewal of energy and excitement that can be felt throughout campus.

While your student should be enthusiastic, feeding off this contagious vibrancy as they prepare to embark on a new academic year, it may be that this momentum of beginning or returning to college is somewhat thwarted by the challenges associated with their navigation of a world of financial aid that lacks clarity and transparency.

As you and your student review their financial aid package, it is important to understand the relationship between your student’s academic success and federal aid while also investigating their eligibility for Federal Work-Study.

FAFSA

It is critical that prior to each academic year, students – both first-year students and returning, upper-class students – complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The application must be completed annually and missing the FAFSA deadline, which is typically June of each year, will prevent students from maximizing their need-based aid. It is the completion of this application that initiates the financial aid process and results in a student receiving their financial aid award letter.

Satisfactory Academic Progress

Financial aid is distributed to students in two forms – institutional aid and federal aid. As if successfully thriving in and passing coursework isn’t stressful enough, it is important to note that federal and, for some institutions, institutional aid is tied to academic success through monitoring what is called Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP). SAP requires that a student maintain a minimum GPA set by the institution and successfully complete a minimum of 67% of their attempted credits (attempted credits include course withdrawals and incompletes). If a student falls short in either of these categories, their aid is not immediately taken away. Instead, students receive a financial aid warning and are given another semester to increase their GPA or improve their percentage of successfully completed credits. A student should both work with their academic advisor and financial aid counselor to design an intentional course schedule that will contribute to returning to SAP.

Federal Work-Study

Based on financial need, some students are eligible for federal work-study funds. If a student is awarded federal work-study aid, it is the responsibility of that student to seek out a part-time, on-campus work-study employment opportunity. These funds are not allocated upfront but instead must be earned by securing an on-campus job. Students are paid an hourly wage for the hours they work, not exceeding the allocated amount of federal work-study aid they’ve been awarded. If eligible for federal work-study, students and parents should discuss what on-campus, work-study opportunities are available to them with their financial aid counselor, particularly how they identify and apply for these opportunities. Students should then begin to seek out these positions as soon as possible. For some institutions, if a student does not utilize and exhaust their federal work-study money, it may not be reallocated in future financial aid awards.

The ultimate goal for you and your student is to maximize their financial aid package to assist in the affordability of college and to understand the various obstacles that may put that aid in jeopardy. Though this is not an exhaustive list, raising awareness surrounding these potential barriers may assist you both in getting the most out of their financial aid award while providing information that will help you stay involved with and support your students’ educational pursuits. And, as financial aid questions arise, your student should always return to the most important source for financial aid information pertaining to their financial aid package, their financial aid counselor.

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Richie Gebauer is the Assistant Dean for Retention and Student Success at Cabrini University. As the founding director of the university’s first-year experience and learning community program, he has led efforts directly connected to retention and persistence, specifically in the areas of orientation, learning communities, academic and professional advising, academic support services, and peer mentor programs.