The financial aid process can be a daunting one. If you don’t get a primer from a guidance counselor or older sibling who is already on a college campus somewhere, it could be difficult to figure out where to start. The good news is, we’re here to help. With a little research and an introduction to the basics, you’ll be using even the most obscure financial aid acronyms with ease.
Your starting point should always be the Free Application for Student Aid, or as you’ve probably already heard before, the FAFSA. That step will determine what you do next, as once your application is processed you’ll know exactly how much free money you’re going to get from federal assistance programs and grants, how much you’ll be able to borrow through federal loans, and how much of your package you may need to supplement through private lending agencies. The process is the same for graduate students, although you may not be eligible for all the programs available to undergraduates, including Federal Pell Grants, a free gift from the government with a current maximum of up to $5,550.
Once you’ve done that, you begin weighing your options, and potentially looking for ways to cut your college costs. Scholarships are an excellent source of financial aid, and if you apply early and often enough, you’ll have a better chance of landing a good amount of free money to supplement your financial aid package. Below, you’ll find more information and tips on navigating the financial aid process, including articles on the latest news from the ever-changing financial aid industry.
The best way to supplement your financial aid package is to apply for (and win) college scholarships. While it will take some initiative, research and time on your part, the payoff is worth it if it decreases your total student loan debt. These days you don’t have to be a star athlete or valedictorian to land scholarships. Many are based on characteristics like need, community service and your intended field of study, or if you dig even deeper, you’ll find a wide array of awards based on more specific characteristics. What makes you unique could be what lands you a generous college scholarship. Chances are you qualify for more scholarships than you thought you did, so conduct a free scholarship search or browse through our site to see awards you may be eligible for and start earning money toward college.
If you’re lucky, your parents have been saving up for your transition from high school to college with one of the popular college saving accounts options. From 529 Plans, which vary by state but offer significant tax savings over taxable accounts, to Coverdell Accounts, which are a good option for families who don’t want to invest more than $2,000 a year for their college-bound children, every parent should be able to find a college saving account to meet their budgets and their needs. A good start for families unsure of where to begin or how much they should strive to save is estimating how much college will cost by using a college financial aid calculator. It’s fine to start with a conservative number, as some of the college saving accounts come with stipulations that the funds must be used for college expenses, which could hurt parents whose children don’t end up going to college or go for a low-cost option like community college.
Federal aid, which is subject to changes in funding levels made by the government, comes in the form of federal grant programs, federal student loans and federal work-study programs. The best indicator of your eligibility for all federal aid is the FAFSA, which is also available online to speed up processing and is ready for you to fill out starting Jan. 1 of each year. Unless you plan on paying for your college expenses out-of-pocket or through your parents’ college savings accounts, the FAFSA will answer most questions of how much funding you’ll be receiving and which federal funding programs you qualify for. Worst case scenario, you find that you’re only eligible for Stafford Loans, which although they’re not as desirable as scholarships and grants that you won’t need to pay back, they’re lower interest than any private loan you’d qualify for.
A little bit of research will not only help you to understand financial aid information better, but help dispel popular misconceptions about the process. Many students think they’re not eligible for many forms of aid, or that applying will not only be tedious but futile. The truth is, the financial aid process is one of the most important if not the most important step you’ll take toward getting yourself into college. More than $130 billion is awarded to college-bound students annually, and while it certainly helps to supplement your application with an impressive academic record, much of the funding is also needs-based or based on criteria that have nothing to do with your GPA or high school course load. Once you’ve filled out your FAFSA, conduct a free scholarship search to find awards you may have never known you were eligible for otherwise, and pad your financial aid package with as much free money from scholarships and grants as you can.
The best way to know what to expect of your financial aid process is to do your research. Lucky for you, we’ve done it for you, and will continue to update our site with the latest news on financial aid happenings that could affect how much you get from the government. Check out our links for financial aid news to determine not only what higher education institutions are doing to affect students’ financial aid packages, but moves the government is making that will make it easier – or harder – for you to take out loans, get awarded grants, and pay for college.
While college is supposed to be one of the most rewarding times in your life, you don’t want to be faced with a monthly payment post-graduation that takes over a high percentage of your salary, or worse yet, one you’d be forced to default on, hurting your credit score. Find money for college by educating yourself on the options available and taking advantage of the millions of dollars being awarded to college-bound high school students each year. And if you’re faced with a bigger tuition bill than you thought, consider your options to keep your college costs low.