Financial Aid Basics for Students
Tuition prices got you down? We'll let you in on a secret. Only about 1/3 of students pay the full sticker price for college. Financial aid is available for all types of students, and comes in various different forms, from grants, loans and scholarships.
Where To Start
In order to receive any federal student aid you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is something you will likely need your parent's help to accomplish as you will need details on your parent's income and tax information. After completing the FAFSA you'll learn what your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC determines your financial need and is what colleges use in determining how much aid you should receive.
Go to www.fafsa.ed.gov to find the FAFSA, which can be completed as early as the 1st of October in the year before you'll be attending college. You only need to complete it once for every college you are applying to, but you do need to fill out the FAFSA for every year in which you want to receive financial aid.
While the FAFSA is necessary to receive federal aid, you may also have to fill out an application called the College Scholarship Service or CSS. Not every school requires this, and it is more common for private schools.
Types of Aid Available
The most common grant given by the government is called a Pell Grant. The current maximum Pell grant award is $5,775, and this is only available to students who are attending school full-time and demonstrate financial need.
There are some other types of grants available depending on your circumstances. Learn more about what federal grants are available here.
Scholarships are available from the college you are applying to, as well as national and local business and organizations. You can win scholarships by getting good grades, being a great athlete, or having some special talent or ability in music, science, computers or anything else. Think about what you're good at and what makes you special and then do some online searching to see what's available.
For more local scholarships, some places you want to check include your high school, your parent's places of employment, your bank, church, or community center.
If you are receiving scholarships from private sources, the FAFSA is not required to receive them. However you may need to report what scholarships you have received to the college you are applying to if you are receiving other types of aid. Scholarships actually can negatively affect how much financial aid you receive from other sources, but the negative affect is usually fairly slight and not enough to outweigh the benefits.
One more thing to think about is what requirements are placed on you for the scholarship. If you leave the sports team, or your GPA drops, will you lose your scholarship? Make sure you know in order to plan ahead effectively.
The most common type of federal aid available to students is loans. Subsidized loans have the interest paid for you until six months after you graduate college. Unsubsidized loans begin accruing interest right away. Because of this subsidized loans are preferable, but they are also limited to students who demonstrate financial need. Learn more about what type and how much money you qualify for in loans.
The current interest rate is 4.29%, fixed throughout the lifetime of the loan. However, interest rates are updated every year and so will likely be different next year when you take out new loans. Be careful, as interest rates are likely to go up!
There are some other types of loans that may be available, including Direct PLUS loans that are available for graduate students or parents of dependent undergraduate students.
Work study are special on-campus jobs that are reserved for students who have financial need. Work study is great because it's money you've earned and don't have to pay back. However, you do have to consider the time you'll spend working. Although most positions are no more than 15 to 20 hours a week, depending on your circumstance this might be difficult.
How Much Aid Will I Get?
Colleges use your EFC, or your answers on the CSS, to determine how much aid you should receive. Your financial aid package can consist of a combination of scholarships, work study, grants and loans. Ideally the amount of financial aid will fully cover anything above your EFC, which you can choose to pay through savings or through loans.
However, this is not always the case. Often colleges are not able to completely cover all of your financial need, leaving a gap between your aid and your EFC. Even if all of your financial need is covered your financial aid package may consist of mainly loans instead of gift money you don't have to pay back.
This is not the end of the story though! You can contact the colleges and request more aid. Emphasize why you would be a good fit for the school and show competing offers from other institutions if it could help your case. The worst they can so is no, but colleges do often respond to this request by offering an additional scholarship. It can't hurt to ask!
For more guidance on the financial aid process as well as contacting colleges to request additional aid you can read College Factual’s eBook, How to Avoid Wasting Money on College Tuition.