Getting financial aid for college in the U.S. can look intimidating. However, the process of applying isn’t as complicated as it first seems, as long as you tackle one thing at a time. Start by filing FAFSA application to become eligible for federal grants. Negotiate with your school of choice for better aid. After you’ve done that, you can conduct a thorough, creative search for non-federal grants and scholarships. Consider federal loans and low-interest private loans when necessary, and don’t give up.
EditCompleting a FAFSA Application
- Apply for a FAFSA as soon as you can. Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the first task to complete to see about getting free money for school. The FAFSA application is available online from October 1st each year. Be sure to fill it out as early as you can. Applying early will ensure that you can get the maximum amount of aid. FAFSA forms cover federal aid and state-specific aid, so there are several deadlines you need to keep in mind:
- Make your school deadline. Check with your schools of choice and ask when they need your FAFSA form. This information will probably be available on their Office of Financial Aid website. If it isn’t, you can call.
- Find out your state deadline. Apply early enough to make your state’s cut off in order to receive state-specific grants. This can be found here: https://fafsa.gov/deadlines.htm
- The federal deadline isn’t until the school year starts, around June 30th, so it shouldn’t affect you.
- You can apply for your FAFSA before you are admitted by a college. However, you won’t actually be awarded the money until after you are accepted.
- Locate the FAFSA form. The application will ask for information about your education, your plans for college, and your and your parents’ finances. Filing your FAFSA will determine your eligibility for a number of grants, scholarships, or loans.
- Go here to complete this application: http://www.fafsa.ed.gov
- Fill this out with the help of your parent or guardian if possible.
- Gather the information you’ll need to complete the form. If your parents or guardians are helping you pay for college, you’ll need their information as well as your own. Ask them for help if they are available to help you. You’ll need:
- Your social Security number
- Your alien registration number (if you are not a citizen)
- Your parent’s social security numbers (if they are helping you pay for college)
- Your driver’s license (if you have one)
- Federal tax information or tax returns including IRS W-2 information, for you (and your spouse, if you are married), and for your parents if they are helping you pay for college. Forms might include:
- IRS 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ
- Foreign tax return and/or tax returns for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or Palau
- Create an FSA ID. Make a username and password combination so you can sign in and out of your FAFSA application. Make sure to record your username and password once you have made them. You can create your ID here: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out/fsaid
- Fill in the schools you are interested in. List all the schools to which you are applying. For federal aid, the order doesn’t matter. However, some states require you to list schools in a particular order so you can receive state aid. Find your state here: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out/school-list#order
- Many states require you to list a state school first in order to be considered for state aid.
- Some states recommend that you list your top choice college first. However, if your preference changes you can update your application to reflect this.
- Enter the highest level of education that your parents completed. Questions 24 and 25 on the FAFSA ask about your parents’ level of education. Be sure that, if your parents only completed some college, you select “High School” as the highest level of education completed. Some states award extra aid to children whose parents did not complete college.
- Pay your bills before applying. The FAFSA will ask you how much money you and your parents have at the moment you are applying. The amount of free aid you receive is based on those numbers. If you have unpaid credit card bills, car payments, or any other expenses that you know you’ll be paying off soon, pay them before you apply. This can help increase the amount of aid you receive.
- Manage investments. If you or your parents have investments, this may lower the amount of federal funding you receive. Know what to exclude from your declared “Investments,” and consider moving money around if you have the option.
- Do not include assets paid into a home or retirement account. Money that you have in retirement accounts or that is invested in a home does not need to be listed as “investments” on your FAFSA.
- If you or your parents have money in a non-retirement account, consider putting it into a Roth IRA account or making a payment toward your mortgage. That way, the money can legally be excluded from your FAFSA, which can make you eligible for more free aid.
EditGetting Aid from Your College
- Speak to your potential college’s financial aid counselor. Many colleges offer scholarships and grants to their students. To find out the types of aid that are available to you and how to apply, schedule a phone call or an appointment with the financial aid counselor of the colleges you are considering. Be sure to ask about deadlines for applications as well!
- Some colleges and universities may require you to fill out the Financial Aid PROFILE. This is an application for non-federal financial aid, which is used by almost 400 schools. The PROFILE application can be filed here: https://student.collegeboard.org/css-financial-aid-profile.
- Appeal for more need-based aid. If your preferred school has not offered you sufficient aid, you can ask for more. To do this, write a personalized letter in which you ask for a “professional judgment review.” Explain that the school is your first choice, but that you need more aid in order to be able to afford it. Gather evidence so you can make a strong appeal:
- If your FAFSA makes it look like you or your parents have more money than they do, provide documents that show this. For instance, you might document serious medical bills or a recent job loss.
- Don’t be frightened of sharing potentially private information. If you have a parent with an addiction (to drugs, gambling, etc) this can present costs that will not be reflected on your FAFSA. Financial aid advisors have seen it all, and won’t be shocked.
- Ask for merit-based aid. Some schools will offer you more money if you have been given a better aid package at a rival school. If you have better-paying options, document them and include this in your letter.
- Send your appeal before you confirm attendance at the school. Schools will be more eager to meet your requests if they are afraid of losing you.
- Ask for “second chance aid.” Some schools will raise your merit-based aid if you bring your grades up in the last few months of high school, for instance. Others will improve your aid for the following year if you do well your freshman year.
- Look into work study. Some schools receive federal or state funding to offer jobs to students in exchange for tuition remission. Ask the Office of Financial Aid if your school offers work study funding. This is determined by your FAFSA, and does not require a separate application.
- To qualify for work study, turn in your FAFSA as soon as you can.
EditTaking out Loans
- Take advantage of the Perkins loan if it is offered. If you turn in your FAFSA in a timely manner, you may qualify for a low-interest loan called the Perkins Loans, which have a set interest rate of 5%. To qualify, you must demonstrate high financial need. Funds for these programs are given on a first come, first served basis.
- Make use of federal Stafford loans. After filing your FAFSA, you may be offered federal student loans in place of or in addition to grant money. Student loans consist of money that you must pay back with interest in the future. Stafford loans are the most common type, and they can be either subsidized or unsubsidized. If the loans are subsidized, then the government will pay your interest while you are in school. If the loans are unsubsidized, you are responsible for paying all the interest that accrues.
- Apply for PLUS Loans and Grad PLUS loans. PLUS loans are loans given to the parents of undergraduate students, and Grad PLUS Loans are given to graduate or professional students. After filing your FAFSA, many schools require that you fill out the supplemental application for PLUS Loans, here: https://studentloans.gov/myDirectLoan/launchPLUS.action.
- Consider taking out private loans. Private loans may come from a bank or another private lending organization, such as Sallie Mae or College Ave. In most cases, it is best to use federal loans instead of private loans, as they have lower interest rates and various options for loan forgiveness. However, if you need to take out private loans, there are some important things to keep in mind:
- Compare interest rates. Look for a loan with a low interest rate that is fixed, which means it will stay the same over time. Loans with variable interest rates may increase or decrease as economic conditions change.
- Look for loans with options to defer payment or make a flexible repayment plan in case there are times when you can’t afford your payments.
- Ask about any fees that will be required in addition to your interest payment.
- Determine whether or not the loan requires a co-signer, and if you have someone who can co-sign for you.
- Manage your student loans. It is important that you don’t neglect paying back your student loans, as doing so can negatively affect your credit. Consider consolidating your loans to simplify the repayment process. If you are unable to afford your payments, speak to your lender about changing your payment due date each month or changing your payment plan altogether. No matter what you do, don’t neglect making the payments. This will hurt your credit score and can lead you into a life of debt.
EditIdentifying Other Grants and Scholarships
- Search for scholarships online. Begin by searching on the U.S. Department of Labor’s free scholarship search tool, found here: https://www.careeronestop.org/toolkit/training/find-scholarships.aspx. Try different filters, such as the level of study or the place where you plan to study. Some other scholarship-specific search engines you can use are Fastweb, Scholarships.com and The College Board website.
- Be creative in the search terms that you use to search for scholarships. Keep in mind that there are thousands of scholarships available for specific circumstances, such as having a certain disability, being part of a minority group, or having a parent in the military.
- Search for grants that are specific to your state. In addition to grants from the federal government, many states offer grants of their own. You can search for grants specific to the state where you’ll be attending college here: https://www.nasfaa.org/State_Financial_Aid_Programs.
- You can also call or email various education departments in your state directly to ask what type of financial aid they offer. You can search for the contact information for your state here: https://www2.ed.gov/about/contacts/state/index.html.
- Leverage your skills. Many scholarships are available to those who have a special skill, such as being a fantastic basketball player or golfer, or having amazing grades in a specific subject. Enter specific keywords related to your skill or talent on one of the scholarship-specific search engines to see what scholarships are available.
- While some sports scholarships are intended for serious athletes, there are also a few available for those who play recreationally. Don’t give up searching just because you’re not the star of the team! Try entering keywords such as “recreational” or “club” when searching for sports-related scholarships.
- Search for scholarships based on your community service. If you have done community service or volunteer projects, you may be eligible for scholarship money. Type in the words “community service” or “volunteer” when searching for scholarships to see the options available to you.
- Look for scholarships through identity-based organizations. Various organizations offer scholarships to students of certain ethnicities. To see if you are eligible for any scholarships based on your ethnicity, go to the US Department of Labor’s website here: https://www.careeronestop.org/toolkit/training/find-scholarships.aspx. Then, in the left sidebar, scroll down to “Affiliation Required” and click on “Ethnic Group Membership.”
- Contact local businesses, religious organizations, and professional organizations in your area of study. Some organizations are eager to help members of their community attend college, so they will offer scholarships to students from their area. You can do a quick search online to find the contact information for businesses and organizations in your area, and then reach out to them to see if they offer any opportunities that you may be eligible for.
- If you are a member of a particular religious organization, that is a great place to start looking for a scholarship.
- When you reach out to a local organization, do not expect that they will offer scholarship money. Be polite, appreciative, and if they do offer a scholarship opportunity, be sure to write down all the details about how you can apply.
- Seek out scholarships for non-traditional students. If you are an adult, a single parent, a displaced worker, a returning veteran, or anyone other than a recent high-school graduate, you are considered a non-traditional student. After filling out your FAFSA, search online for scholarships specific to your age, gender, intended career path, and parental status. You can also search online for general scholarships for non-traditional students.
EditDeclaring a Sponsored Major
- Look into TEACH Grants if you are majoring in education. If you decide to pursue a degree in teaching, you may be eligible for the TEACH Grant. The TEACH Grant is a government grant offered to students who enroll in a TEACH-Grant-eligible program in college and are willing to commit to teaching for 4 years after graduation in a high-need area of the United States. You can learn more about the TEACH grant by going to https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships/teach.
- Check out SMART grants if you are pursuing a math, science, or engineering degree. Students who major in fields such as math, science, technology, engineering, or critical foreign languages may be eligible for the SMART Grant. Consider one of those majors if you would like to be eligible for this grant! You can learn more about the SMART Grant here: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/ac-smart.html.
- Students can receive the SMART grant in their third and fourth year of college.
- Try for a nursing or health care grant during shortages. There is federal funding to offset shortages of highly necessary professionals in the field of health care. If you are studying nursing or another health care related profession, look for funding from the US Department of Health and Human Services: https://bhw.hrsa.gov/loansscholarships
- State scholarships may also be available, though they tend to require you to work in state in underserved hospitals or critical shortage facilities.
- Look into subject-specific grants for women and minorities. If you are a woman, a person of color, or otherwise are from an identity group that is underrepresented in certain fields, you may be eligible for scholarships designed to broaden the professional populations of those fields.
- Ask the financial aid office at your schools of choice for subject-specific opportunities.
- This article focuses on the process of getting financial aid for college in the United States. The process will be different in different countries.
- Most free money received from the government comes in the form of Pell Grants, which are typically awarded only to undergraduate students who have not yet received a Bachelor’s degree. Pell Grants are given based on financial need. The maximum amount of a Pell Grant for the 2017-2018 school year is 5,920 USD.
- Other types of grants that you may be considered for after filing your FAFSA include the FSEOG (Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant) or the ACG (Academic Competitiveness Grant).
- When you consider how much money to take out in student loans, be sure that you only take out the minimum amount that is needed. It can be tempting to take out as much money as possible so that you can enjoy it in the short term. However, the more money that you borrow, the more interest you will pay and the longer it will take for you to be debt-free. Do your future self a favor by borrowing only the amount that you absolutely need.