Outlook Brian Weingart

Brian Weingart, senior director of financial aid at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, said incoming college students — and all current college students — should make sure they fill out the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA) to ensure they qualify for financial aid and student loan options, as well as scholarships.

With graduation season just a few months away, both high school and college seniors should be preparing to make some big financial decisions.

As high-schoolers start to weigh options of which college or university they will attend, they should be considering the role of financial aid packages in their choice, and ensuring they take advantage of any assistance they qualify for.

“They should be making an appointment and talking to someone at the college. Go over what you qualify for and what you don’t, in clear terms, and how those things may change during your time there — what are the expectations on you,” said Brian Weingart, senior director of financial aid at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. “You don’t want to get into a college, and then in your second year realize you can’t afford it and have to transfer.”

Weingart said incoming college students — and all current college students — should make sure they fill out the Free Application For Federal Student Aid to ensure they qualify for financial aid and student loan options, as well as scholarships. While the FAFSA itself doesn’t have a deadline, different programs and schools have various deadlines to submit the form. Perhaps the most important to remember for students in West Virginia is March 1, the deadline to apply for the PROMISE Scholarship, a merit-based financial aid program for state residents.

“The [FAFSA] form takes about 20-25 minutes to fill out, and it’s free,” Weingart said. “Even if you don’t think you’re going to get anything from it, you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s better safe than sorry, leaving money or aid on the table.”

Weingart said a common mistake made by students is forgetting to fill out the application year-to-year. He also said it’s important for students to follow up with any directives they get after filling out the FAFSA, like submitting tax return information or other documents.

“That’s why you should always make sure you’re giving the most recent, reliable contact information to these agencies,” Weingart said.

Another thing those preparing to attend college should be aware of is the academic common markets, which allows students looking at entering certain degree programs that may not be offered at schools in one state (like marine biology in West Virginia) to qualify for in-state tuition at schools in a different state that do offer the program.

Weingart said students should also explore options offered by various community organizations, state and federal agencies for scholarship or loan programs that could help lessen the burden of paying for college.

“Each one has different qualifications and deadlines, but it’s important to shop around and do the research to make sure you’re getting everything you qualify for,” Weingart said.

For students who have already graduated college and are getting ready to make loan payments, Weingart said they should make sure they are in contact with their loan servicers to make sure they understand what payment obligations entail.

Most loans will be deferred for six months after graduation, meaning payments will not be mandatory until then. If graduates — or those still enrolled in college — are able, though, they should consider making payments before this date to save money on interest.

By making payments while still in school, students can cut down the principal amount they owe, meaning less interest will accrue on the debt.

“It’s also a good idea, if you get a job right after graduation, to consider making payments then, too,” Weingart said.

Either way, recent grads should make sure they set up automatic payments for their student loan bills to avoid defaulting on them, which could lead to long-term consequences like dragging down their credit rating and disqualifying them for any loan-forgiveness options.

Weingart said people should also be sure to check with their loan servicers if they are contacted by someone to make payments or give personal information regarding their student loans. Scammers will occasionally use student loans as a lure to steal financial or other credentials from individuals.

“If you have other companies calling you for other things you can get, check with your loan servicer and make sure it’s legitimate,” Weingart said. “It’s always good to go to the federal website and check any federal loans or programs you could qualify for — all that information will be there, and it’s better safe than sorry.”