From grants to loans to scholarships, the world of college financial aid can be complicated and intimidating. Luckily for you, I sat down with Matt Mourovic, the director of financial services and customer relations at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, to bring you all the answers you need.
Q: Can you walk me through the financial aid process, how does it start? What types of financial aid are there?
A: Financial Aid at UMass Amherst has three parts:
Part one is when you apply for admission to the university. Our Admissions Office has a limited pool of merit-based scholarship funds. Those scholarships are awarded at the time of admission based solely on your academic merit in high school and the quality of your admission application.
Part two is the financial aid that is handled by the Financial Aid Office. This financial aid is almost all based on the information that's reported in your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is the only application for aid that we require. When we get the FAFSA, what we're getting is a sense of how much financial need that you have. We use that information to try to connect you with grants from the federal government, the state government, or the school, as well as federal student loans and federal work study.
And then part three of the aid process is looking for outside aid, such as scholarships that are available from outside sources, private loans, etc.
Q: What happens when students submit their financial aid forms?
A: The FAFSA will ask you questions about your family structure and family income. How many people are in your family? How many people are going to college? What was your family’s adjusted gross income in 2019? It uses these questions to determine your “Expected Family Contribution,” or EFC.
In terms of the actual process, the student and their family complete the FAFSA online. The federal government will take a couple of days to process your FAFSA once you submit it. Once they’ve finished with it, they’ll send your information to all of the schools you’ve listed on your FAFSA.
As long as you've been admitted to UMass Amherst and we were one of schools you listed on your FAFSA, we will create a financial aid award for you within about a week of receiving your FAFSA data or admitting you to the university. We post your financial aid award on your SPIRE account (your online student portal at UMass Amherst), and send you an email inviting you to check out your award.
Once we get your FAFSA and create your award, there can be other things that need to happen, like signatures or additional documents that need to be provided to the FAFSA. We call those “To Do’s” and post them in your SPIRE To Do List.
If you get any of those “To Do” requests, it's important to follow up with them because those can hinder your awards from actually being posted to your bill.
Q: What are some resources students have to cover anything that might not be covered by FAFSA?
A: There's a lot of different options to look at.
Obviously, you always want to be looking for and applying to scholarships. We usually advise students to try to keep their scholarship search local — start with their high school guidance office, local community organizations, their employer, community foundations, etc. We have a great scholarship search tool on the Financial Aid website, too.
The Bursar's Office runs a payment plan, which is called UPay. The payment plan allows you to sign a contract at the start of the semester to pay some portion of your bill, and rather than paying that chunk all up front, they split it into five equal payments which you pay out monthly over the course of the semester.
Many students look at private loans or parent loans to help with their out-of-pocket contribution. We advise that if students are going to borrow private loans, that they try to borrow the least amount possible because these loans tend to have higher interest rates and more aggressive repayment terms than the federal loans. We also have good emergency resources on campus.
Q: Can you talk to me a little bit about those emergency resources?
A: We have a couple of different scholarship funds that were established by some generous donors to the university to help students with emergencies specifically, so depending on the circumstances, sometimes the Financial Aid Office can help students who find themselves in a financial emergency.
There are some good resources through our Dean of Students office to help with food insecurity, housing insecurity, and unforeseen emergency expenses. They have a no-interest loan program and an emergency grant program, both of which can be really good resources for smaller expenses.
Q: What is your number one recommendation for students trying to understand financial aid?
A: My number one recommendation for students is to take advantage of the resources that they have available through our office.
We’re open for phone calls 9-12 & 1-4, Mon-Fri, emails any time, and we’re scheduling callback appointments and zoom appointments here.
The second thing to know is that it's probably a simpler process than you think it is. Don't be scared. Very few people run into a problem that is actually big and scary when they're in this process. And even when we do find problems that really are big and scary, we can still help people through them.
Q: What about international students? What kind of financial aid can they access?
A: There are some resources out there, but many of our financial aid options require a FAFSA, so international students and other students who are ineligible to complete the FAFSA have more limited options.
We’ve got some links posted on our website under the heading “International Students” where students can look and see some “non FAFSA” scholarships, private loans, information on the payment plan, and some other helpful info.
Q: Do you have any advice about managing student loan debt for after graduation?
A: The first and most important thing is to understand what you owe, and what your options are for repayment.
We can help you figure out your total loan burden, what the different repayment options are, and sort of what that will look like. And we can also help you navigate some options for repayment. If you're currently enrolled, anything that you can do to decrease your borrowing now is going to really pay off in the future.
It's important to stay active, respond to your student loan providers’ emails, make sure that you're making your payments, that you have a payment plan set up. And, don't think that there's only one option to get your loans paid.
There you have it! Financial aid may seem like a scary monster, but it’s way simpler than you think. Remember than you’re not alone, and that UMass has a financial aid office ready to help you with whatever you may need.