Advice from a Financial Aid Expert
At UC Berkeley, we know that navigating the world of financial aid can be daunting. Understanding the language used to determine your financial aid status and eligibility can be confusing. Trying to figure out the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans might make you want to throw your computer out the window. Fear not! This article is dedicated to making sure all students – both current and brand new – feel like they have a better grasp of how financial aid functions at Cal.
To better understand how this whole system works, and get some piping hot tips, we spoke with Cruz Grimaldo, the first Chicanx director of Financial Aid and Scholarships and Assistant Vice Chancellor. Cruz graduated from Cal in 1998, and she has been volunteering and working in the financial aid department here ever since. As a former low-income student herself, she takes pride in offering assistance, especially to other low-income students and students of color. We all know how confusing and scary it can feel to face the financial aid world, and we chose Cruz to guide us with her wealth of indispensable knowledge.
1. Apply, apply, apply — for financial aid.
Cruz: No matter what your situation is (and, if you are an applicant, no matter which colleges you select), you should apply for financial aid. I have come across situations where students fail to apply because they don’t think they will qualify for grants or scholarships. Then at some point in the year, their situation changes — a parent loses a job or there is a medical emergency — and the student needs funding. Applying for financial aid early each year can expedite the process of awarding aid, especially when unexpected circumstances arise.
2. Apply, apply, apply — for outside scholarships.
Cruz: Our philosophy is to help students achieve and afford a world-class education. This means that when you bring in an outside scholarship we first reduce your need-based loan(s) (based on financial need) and work-study before we reduce scholarships and grants (gift aid). While there are some exceptions to this, this is ultimately our goal. Therefore, it is to your advantage to apply for and secure outside scholarships. The other advantage is that it makes you more competitive for other prestigious scholarships, such as a Fulbright, in the future. Scholarships are awarded based on a wide variety of criteria, not simply a stellar GPA, so research early and often.
3. Consider all options to help you finance your education.
Cruz: While you may have grants and scholarships in your financial aid offer, we encourage you to keep an open mind when it comes to borrowing some or all of your student loans (if you find borrowing necessary). I hear many stories of students who didn’t want to borrow loans because of family issues or other pressures and ended up working multiple jobs, skipping meals, or running out of money before the semester ends. These are the cases when I wish students would make an appointment with one of our Bears for Financial Success (BFFS) peer mentors. The BFFS mentors can give you the tools for building a spending plan and teach you the basics on borrowing — like when to borrow and borrowing only what you absolutely need.
4. Be creative!
Cruz: Many students have unique family or life circumstances that can affect how they fund their education at Berkeley. This includes nontraditional students, like re-entry or foster youth, but also students whose families are unable or unwilling to provide financial support while at Berkeley. If you are among these students, know that you are not alone. I’ve worked with many students who had to strategize and be creative when funding their education. Aside from applying for outside scholarships every year, students found other sources of funding to sustain them throughout the year. Some students took summers off and went home to minimize expenses and work full time. This gave them the opportunity to save money for the next academic year. Others developed academic plans that allowed them to take slightly less rigorous courses so they could work more during the year, or became Resident Assistants in the residence halls to minimize housing expenses. I have known students who have fundraised for themselves and made it work!
5. Review information, follow steps, and meet deadlines.
Cruz: We certainly don’t expect you to have all the answers when it comes to the aid application process, so here are two tips that I think you will find helpful when you’re starting out.
- Set aside time for you and your family to review the aid portion of your FAFSA or review your CADAA ahead of time. Ask yourself what information you will need to gather to complete the application (social security numbers, tax return information, etc.). Also apply for your FSA ID or your Dream Application PIN to electronically sign your application ahead of time and keep this information in a safe place.
- Add all dates and deadlines to your calendar and set reminders well in advance to ensure you are considered for all forms of financial aid. Few things are worse than losing out on potential funding because of a missed deadline. Since many funding sources are limited, missing a deadline may prevent an organization or university from considering you for an award or making an exception. Trust me, you don’t want to put yourself in that position!
6. Use UC Berkeley’s resources to help you learn.
Cruz: If I have only one thing I want you to take away, it’s this: Learn how to manage your money. Develop some strategies for different scenarios, including a “worst-case scenario.” Take advantage of financial literacy help, such as Bears for Financial Success. We have a lot of information on the Financial Aid website and also partner closely with Cal Student Central (different from CalCentral!) to support you. By being financially literate, you’ll free up energy and time for your academic and social life at college.
We hope you found this information as helpful as we did. Remember that you can always contact the financial aid office (510.664.9181) if you have any questions, even if you are a prospective student! As a low-income transfer student myself who has faced the challenge of financial illiteracy, I found Cruz’s reminder to use Bears for Financial Success especially helpful. One last thing before you go: don’t be afraid to ask questions, and always prioritize getting financial aid tasks out of the way before you run out of time. Get yourself an ice cream cone or a cheeseburger after and pat yourself on the back for doing something hard. Every time you choose to learn more about financial aid, it becomes less foreign and scary, so rip the band-aid off and apply for some scholarships. We believe in you!
Mikena Richards (they/them/theirs) is a junior transfer student at UC Berkeley majoring in English.