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How to navigate financial aid packages and the 'FAFSA fiasco'

Students sit on the lawn near Royce Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
Students sit on the lawn near Royce Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

High school seniors across the country are receiving their college financial aid packages.

Jill Schlesinger, CBS News business analyst and host of “Jill on Money,” shares tips for families deciding how to pay for school.

Think about what may go wrong

Too much student debt can not only hold borrowers back from reaching goals like buying a home but also take a high emotional toll, Schlesinger says. And for parents bearing the responsibility of loans, repaying could delay retirement.

“The candid conversations really have to be that ‘No one in this family is going to have this emotional and financial weight sitting like an anvil on our shoulders so that we can’t make better financial choices in the future,’” she says.

Consider how much to borrow

Data show college graduates who completed four-year programs earn more over their careers and have a lower unemployment rate — so borrowing is worth it, Schlesinger says. However, taking on too much debt can weigh borrowers down.

Over all four years, try not to borrow more than you’ll make in your first year working. A student who would only make around $50,000 right out of school should limit their debt more than someone projected to earn $100,000, Schlesinger says, for example.

Read the aid package closely 

Aid packages from every individual college look different.

“A lot of families — especially if you’re the first person in your family who’s gone to college — may confuse the difference between free money, a grant, and a loan,” Schlesinger says.

If there’s any confusion, she recommends calling the college and asking whether a sum of money offer is free or requires repayment.

If you haven’t received your FAFSA package…

Check the Department of Education website.

Due to changes to the Federal Student Aid process this year, the form went online three months later than usual and many families are still having trouble filling it out. Problems with theFAFSA process continue to escalate, but Schlesinger says the department is providing daily updates online.

Hafsa Quraishi produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.