Marilyn Ponti

whitman college

It’s tax season, and that means we’re all thinking about our finances. For families in Walla Walla and across the country, the question of how to afford college is on a lot of minds these days. Whether your little ones are still learning their ABCs or you have one kid in college already and are wondering how you will afford the next one, these concerns are quite common, and financial aid professionals are here to help.

As director of financial aid services for Whitman College and someone who has spent the last 24 years of my life working in the financial aid field, I’ve learned a thing or two about questions families have, no matter where they are in the process.

Nationwide, FAFSA (which stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) completion rates are low. Washington State is no exception. In our community, we are doing everything we can to turn the tide.

That’s why we all work together to put on Financial Aid Nights every fall at the local high schools, plus elsewhere in our region where we get invited. These are great opportunities to connect with parents and students in our community (keep an eye out for information about these events October through January). We do our best because we want families to be equipped with the information they need and to have the chance to ask important questions. This is a labor of love for me and my staff — in fact, it’s all volunteer hours. We really believe in the work we’re doing.

In recent years, about 60% of Wa-Hi seniors have completed their FAFSA, and we’re eager to see that number keep climbing.

This is the advice I shout from the rooftops: Fill out the forms. Even if you think college is not feasible right now, fill out the FAFSA. It’s free — and it might surprise you. Ask any financial aid worker at any of the three colleges in Walla Walla and we’ll all tell you the same thing: This is our No. 1 goal. We want everyone to get those forms turned in on time so that every student in the Valley has access to a college education if they want one. We know not every family can afford to set up college funds for their kids — that’s okay! That’s part of why financial aid exists in the first place. And once you fill out the paperwork, you’ll get a much clearer picture of how much college might cost.

When we host Financial Aid Nights, parents come in with their tax returns. That’s the first thing you need to get started, and we work with you every step of the way. We usually have a Spanish interpreter on hand, and the FAFSA itself is available in English and Spanish. It’s also available as a mobile app for families without computers or internet connections at home. Once your information is entered, we’ll explain your expected family contribution, which is based on the FAFSA (and sometimes another form, the CSS Profile. Whitman uses both forms in order to gather as many details about applicants as possible, so we can really customize our financial aid packages. There is a small fee for the CSS Profile, but if you are eligible for a waiver on the SAT, you won’t have to pay). We’ll even help you print it all out. All you need to do is show up.

Over the years, I’ve gotten questions about all kinds of factors that might influence financial aid decisions: income, assets, divorce, family size, bankruptcy, job loss, medical bills. The answer is almost always this: Talk to the financial aid office at your school. The more we know about your situation, the better we’re able to advocate for you. And the sooner we know it, the more effective we can be.

If you’re already paying tuition for one or more kids, for example, you’ll likely catch a break. I always give out my email and phone number as part of my presentation, and I welcome these conversations.

Of course, I hope every student I meet at these Financial Aid Nights will consider Whitman. But at the end of the day, what’s most important is giving yourself options.

I’m happy to answer questions no matter what schools you’re considering. Our shared purpose in working with families is to demystify what can otherwise be a confusing process.

We hope that by helping with this first step, the rest of them will feel less intimidating. That’s the reason we pour our hearts into our work, so that every student in our community can soar.

Marilyn Ponti is the director of financial aid services at Whitman College.