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Maximizing Your Financial Aid Package

Students who plan to obtain a postsecondary degree have to worry about more than time management and homesickness when heading off to college. Because a quality college education has become almost non-negotiable in terms of landing a satisfying, well-paying job, families often spend most of their time on the college application process, letting financial aid preparation fall by the wayside. What you should know is that the financial aid process is going to be one of your most important tasks of your college career. Applying for financial aid will help you not only avoid debt and land free scholarship and grant funding from your school and the federal government, but allow you to go to that school that may seem out of reach without some financial assistance.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average annual cost of undergraduate tuition, room, and board were estimated to be $12,681 at public institutions and $31,876 at private institutions. The average annual cost of a private education at a four-year college was $32,475, and considering that a rising number of students require five years to complete what is generally considered a four-year degree, these costs can quickly increase. Few families can continue to afford college tuition out of pocket without some form of financial aid.

Fortunately, financial aid is available, and most students and families do receive assistance. Before looking to private student loans as a college-funding solution, students can seek out financial aid from the federal government, colleges and universities, and outside scholarship providers. Below are some options students should consider before tuition deadlines roll around, and tips on making sure you’re ready to file a successful financial aid application.

Federal Financial Aid

Whether they know the details or not, most students will hear the acronym FAFSA from their high school classmates or counselors. For students who demonstrate financial need, filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is one of the easiest ways of receiving financial aid for college.

Though the form may be confusing at first, assistance from the Department of Education and you’re your college’s financial aid administrator and financial aid office is available free of charge. After providing the government with information about one’s financial status, students will receive a report detailing their eligibility for a number of federal financial aid programs, including the Federal Pell Grant, the Academic Competitiveness Grant (ACG), the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), the National SMART Grant, Federal Work Study and Stafford, Federal Perkins Loans and Federal PLUS Loans.

The most widespread of these grants, the Federal Pell Grant, will be awarded to students based on financial need and full or part-time status, without regard to one’s academic standing. Many other federal grants will require that you’re first found eligible for the Pell, and may have other requirements, including interest in a particular field of study or a high level of academic achievement.

Federal Stafford and Perkins Loans are, as you may have guessed, funds that have to be repaid. Students who cannot secure sufficient funding through grants, scholarships and savings may look to federal loans as an alternative to the more expensive, higher-interest private student loans. Private student loans should be the last resort, as they will offer a higher interest rate than federal student loans.

Institutional (College) Financial Aid

In addition to filling out a FAFSA, students should investigate the opportunities afforded to them by their intended college or university. Students who receive their acceptance letters without indication of a college scholarship need not feel that they’re ineligible for any college-based assistance. Many colleges will expect you to take the initiative to seek out opportunities at that school.

Another college financial aid option, the Federal Work Study (FWS) program, may be available to students who wish to work off some of their school costs at a job sanctioned by their college. The jobs are often connected to a student’s interests or field of study, and if you work on your college campus, the job will most likely have a connection to your college. If you work off campus, your employer will usually be a private nonprofit organization or a public agency, and the work performed must be in the public interest. You’ll be making at least the federal minimum wage at the job, and when assigning work hours, your employer or financial aid administrator will consider your class schedule and your academic progress.

Those who do not automatically qualify for a college scholarship may also contact their college financial aid office to find out about additional institutional scholarship or fellowship opportunities. Because scholarships offered by individual schools are frequently restricted to students who attend that school, applicants will have less competition when applying for those awards. Institutional scholarships and fellowships usually require some work in the form of essays or research and not all will be eligible, but, if available, they are worth considering and often very generous.

Scholarship Financial Aid

Almost every student will find that they are eligible for a long list of scholarship opportunities. Free scholarship searches such as that provided by Scholarships.com can be an easy and method for finding awards students are eligible for based on their individual characteristics, such as academic achievements, the school they play on attending, location and interests, among many others.

Outside sources such as large corporations are often very generous in the number and size of scholarships awarded, and eligibility criteria vary. Companies such as Coca-Cola, Best Buy, McDonalds and Google award numerous scholarships annually to students looking to find money for college.

Many private donors and foundations also set up scholarship endowments, or funds that are annually used to award money. For example, a couple who enjoys golfing may create a scholarship fund in their name that, each year, will be used to award a promising golfer college money. A foundation that conducts cancer research may likewise award financial aid to medical school students who have the potential to become future researchers themselves. Determine what makes you special and seek out those outside opportunities, or conduct a free scholarship search to see the kinds of awards you could have a good shot at winning.

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