Ask a Financial Aid Expert: Mark Kantrowitz

When it comes to financial aid, few people will be able to point you in right direction as well as national expert Mark Kantrowitz can. As the publisher of the very resourceful FinAid and Fastweb websites and the author of the bestseller Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, Mark has developed quite a name for himself as the go-to source for all financial aid inquiries. He has been featured in numerous prestigious publications and media outlets such as The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, and much more. Read on for the incredibly valuable insights and advice Mark shares on financial aid options and the future of higher education.

VT: What are some first steps every student should take in the financial aid search?

Mark: Every student should search for scholarships on free scholarship matching web sites like They should start searching for scholarships as soon as possible, because every dollar you win is about a dollar less you’ll have to borrow. When searching a free scholarship site, answer all of the optional questions. Students who answer the optional questions tend to match about twice as many scholarships as students who answer just the required questions, since the optional questions are there to trigger the inclusion of specific scholarships. 

Students should also file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year, even if they did not get any aid other than loans, starting January 1 of the senior year in high school. Families often underestimate eligibility for need-based aid and overestimate eligibility for merit-based aid.

VT: What are some of the biggest mistakes students make when searching for financial aid?

Mark: The biggest mistake students make is to not apply for scholarships and financial aid. You can’t win if you don’t apply.

For example, sometimes families file the FAFSA when their eldest child applies for admission, but don’t get anything other than loans. The next year they decide to not bother filing the FAFSA. But that year they would have had two children in college, instead of one, and would have qualified for much more financial aid as a result.

Families often wait until the spring of the senior year in high school to start figuring out how to pay for college. By then they’ve missed half of the deadlines during the senior year alone. There are also scholarships you can win in younger grades. You can even win scholarships in elementary school (see for a list). It’s never too late to start searching for scholarships, but the sooner you start, the fewer deadlines you’ll miss. 

Another mistake is not applying to every scholarship for which you are eligible. Some students say they don’t want to do it because it is too much work or the scholarship amounts are too small or they don’t like writing essay questions. But even among the most talented students, winning a scholarship depends as much on luck as skill. It is very difficult for selection committees to choose among the finalists, so who wins is partly a matter of chance. You can increase your chances of winning a scholarship by applying to more scholarships. The students who win a gazillion scholarships are the ones who apply to every scholarship for which they are eligible. Applying for scholarships is not as difficult as it may seem. After your first half dozen or so scholarships it gets easier, since every new application can reuse essays from previous applications.

The smaller scholarships are easier to win, the amounts add up, and they add lines to your resume that may help you win bigger awards. When you win a scholarship, it’s a vote of confidence in you. It means the scholarship provider thought highly enough about you to invest their money in your future.

VT: Describe some specific types of financial aid that are often overlooked.

Mark: Families often overlook the education tax benefits because these are claimed when you file your federal income tax return, instead of when you need to pay the college bills. The education tax benefits include the American Opportunity Tax Credit (also known as the Hope Scholarship Tax Credit), the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit and the Tuition and Fees Deduction. Families also sometimes make suboptimal choices among the education tax benefits. Generally, the American Opportunity Tax Credit will yield the greatest financial benefit to the family if they are eligible, but the only way to be certain is to calculate the tax liability under each of the three options.

These days, students are so focused on the online world that they sometimes overlook the offline world. In addition to searching for scholarships on, students should also look in scholarship listing books in their local public library or bookstore. The Fastweb site is good for a targeted match, while scholarship-listing books are good for random exploration. These books can be found near the Jobs and Careers section. Before using any book, however, check the copyright date. If the book is more than a year or two old, it is too old to be useful, as about 10% of scholarships change in some material way each year. Also look for scholarships posted on bulletin boards outside your high school guidance counselor’s office and the financial aid office. These will include small local awards that do not want to be listed in any of the national scholarship databases, such as PTA scholarships and Dollars for Scholars.

VT: What are the most important things to communicate to a financial aid officer to increase your chances of receiving aid?

Mark: Don’t call them financial aid officers. They may work in a financial aid office, but they are not the financial aid police. They are there to help you pay for college. Calling a financial aid administrator or financial aid counselor an officer will offend them.

The FAFSA is a one size fits all financial aid application form. It doesn’t have a place for you to mention exceptional situations. Instead, tell the college financial aid administrator about any unusual financial circumstances. Unusual circumstances include anything that changed from last year to this year and anything that distinguishes your family from the typical family. This can include job loss and salary reductions, highly unreimbursed medical and dental care, high childcare and eldercare expenses (e.g., for a special needs child), and private K-12 tuition, among other special circumstances. Ask the college financial aid administrator for a “professional judgment review”. Some colleges call it a special circumstances review or financial aid appeal. The college may have a form for you to complete, or may ask you to send a letter summarizing the unusual circumstances. Include a copy of any third party documentation of the unusual circumstances. For example, if you were laid off, you’d enclose a copy of the layoff notice or a letter showing the recent receipt of unemployment benefits. If the financial aid administrator feels that your circumstances merit an adjustment, the amount of the adjustment will be related to the financial impact of the unusual circumstances. Financial aid administrators are more likely to make adjustments when the circumstances were beyond the family’s control. There is no appeal beyond the college financial aid administrator, so it pays to be polite.

VT: What are some things students can do before the senior year of high school to begin funding their college costs?

Mark: Students should start searching for scholarships as soon as possible, even in elementary school. There are many scholarships you can win before you are a senior in high school. The scholarship provider will hold the scholarship until you enroll in college. Some scholarships require advance preparation, such as a science fair project, so you can’t wait until the last minute to prepare your application.

Students should also focus on their academics and interests. Contrary to popular belief, depth is more important than breadth when it comes to winning scholarships. Every scholarship sponsor wants to find the student who best matches their selection criteria.

Students can also start saving for college in a section 529 college savings plan. Every dollar you save is about a dollar less you’ll have to borrow, and every dollar you borrow will cost you about two dollars by the time you repay the debt.

Students can also work during the summer to earn money to pay for college. 

VT: There are many different kinds of scholarships out there. Describe the different types and which ones you would most recommend taking the time to apply for.

Mark: I recommend applying to all the scholarships for which you are eligible and only the scholarships for which you are eligible. You may be the nicest person on the planet, but if the scholarship requires a 3.4 GPA and you have a 3.3 GPA, it is a waste of your time to apply for the scholarship. On the other hand, this might give you an incentive to improve your grades.

Most scholarships are based on merit, not financial need. They might be based on academic, artistic or athletic talent. Or they might be based on unusual criteria, such as creating a prom costume out of duct tape, speaking Klingon, or singing the national anthem with sincerity. There are scholarships for smart people and scholarships for average people, scholarships for tall and short people, and scholarships for lefties and golf caddies. Chances are, if you have a special skill, there’s a scholarship for that.

VT: What can parents do to best assist their students in the financial aid process?

Mark: Paying for college is a partnership between student and parent. The parents will be paying the bills. The student should focus on getting good grades and applying for scholarships. The student will also be working part-time jobs during the semester and summer to pay for college, as well as borrowing from the federal student loan programs.

Parents may be tempted to do all the work, but that would be inappropriate. College is a transition from a sheltered existence to the real world. So parents should make sure the student does the scholarship search and submits the application forms.

Parents should also consider discussing their finances with the student so that the student can see the limit to the amount of money the parents will be able to spend on their college education.

VT: What are the biggest obstacles that might stand in your way when attempting to receive financial aid and how can you overcome them?

Mark: Clean up your online presence. Google your name and review your Facebook page to make sure there isn’t anything inappropriate (or illegal). Use a formal email address, like, instead of a suggestive name like About a quarter of scholarship providers are now Googling their finalists to make sure there aren’t any red flags before they choose the winners. They may also require finalists to ‘friend’ them on Facebook. They don’t want to award a scholarship to a student who will reflect badly on them.

If a student fails to maintain satisfactory academic progress (SAP), they can lose eligibility for financial aid from the federal government, state government and the college. This means maintaining at least a 2.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale and passing enough classes to be on track to graduate. Remember, you are going to college to get an education, not to party.

Beware of scholarship scams. If you have to pay money to get money, it’s probably a scam. Scholarships are about giving you money, not getting you to pay money. So never invest more than a postage stamp to get information about scholarships or to apply for scholarships. Nobody can guarantee that you’ll win a scholarship. 

Once you’ve won a scholarship, make sure you keep it. Renewable scholarships have a variety of requirements for you to continue to receive it. This may include writing a report on your activities once or twice a year, sending grade reports to the scholarship provider, and maintaining good grades. Some scholarship providers will require you to participate in community service. You’ve done the hard work of winning a scholarship. Make sure you don’t lose it.

VT: Advice for students seemingly facing a dead-end in terms of receiving scholarships, loans, grants, etc.?

Mark: Only about 1 in 8 students win scholarships. Less than 0.3% of students receive a free ride. So, scholarships are part of the plan for paying for college, but not the entire plan. Most students will have to rely on government aid and money from the college. You may have no choice but to accept loans. The unsubsidized Stafford loan and PLUS loan do not depend on financial need, so even wealthy students can qualify. You can also find part-time jobs on or near campus that can help you pay for school.

If you are having trouble paying for college, talk to the financial aid administrator at your school. Also call the US Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) if you have questions about federal student aid and the FAFSA. College Goal Sunday ( is a source of help in completing the FAFSA.

VT: What's your outlook - 3 or 5 years out - on issues that will affect funding for higher education? 

Mark: Unfortunately, Congress is focused on cutting the federal budget, so the outlook for increases in government aid is slim to none. That may be better than cuts, but when grants fail to keep pace with increases in college costs, college becomes less affordable. This forces students to graduate with more debt or to shift their enrollment to lower-cost colleges. Low and moderate-income students are increasingly being priced out of a college education.

There will likely be increased emphasis on improving financial aid disclosures and financial literacy training so that students and their families can make more informed decisions about college affordability. Loan programs may be overhauled, and some financial aid programs may be streamlined and simplified. 

VT: How do you see online courses affecting college costs?

Mark: There is a lot of hype about online education. But in practical terms, it probably will not affect college costs much. There are fundamental reasons why the average class size today is the same as it was 100 years ago. Learning is interactive. It requires tutorial sessions, the ability to ask questions and diagnostic quizzes. This is labor intensive. Watching a videotaped lecture is not enough. Maybe in 50-100 years online education technology will have matured enough to provide a high quality education at lower cost. But for the next few decades it will not be as effective as brick & mortar instruction. The main benefit of online education for the next few years is that it enables students who are sick to keep up with the classwork from their dorm rooms while they recuperate.

VT: What are some ways to compare the value of different institutions? E.g., comparing a well-known and highly ranked university with a smaller liberal-arts degree focused college.  

Mark: When comparing college costs, consider the net price, not the net cost. 

The net price is a kind of discounted sticker price. It is the total cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board, books, supplies, transportation to/from school and miscellaneous expenses) minus just the grants and other gift aid that does not need to be repaid. This is the amount of money you will have to pay from savings, income and loans to cover college costs.

The net cost is the total cost of attendance minus the full financial aid package. But the financial aid package includes loans, which must be repaid, usually with interest. A loan does not reduce your costs. Instead, it lets you spread out the costs over time.

Most colleges will have a similar net cost, about the same as the expected family contribution. The net price, however, will vary significantly from one college to the next. The net price is a better basis for making an informed decision about college affordability. Financial fit isn’t the only criterion for choosing a college, but it is an important one.

The colleges with the lowest net price will generally be in-state public colleges and the six dozen or so colleges with generous “no loans” financial aid policies. (See for a list of the no loans colleges.)


Visit Finaid and Fastweb for more information.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.