Very few students can pay the costs of college tuition, fees, books, room and board, bills, and random expenses without some kind of help. Luckily, several sources of financial aid, including some you might not know about, are available to help cover your costs. With a combination of research, diligence, and luck, some students even manage to enroll and succeed in college with little or no financial support from their families because of the financial aid they receive.
Financial aid seems complex because it can come from so many different sources. Each source may have different rules about how to receive the money and how not to lose it. The financial aid staff at your college can help you find the way to get the largest amount of money that doesn’t need to be repaid, the lowest interest rate on loans, and work possibilities that fit your academic program. Whether or not your family can help you pay for college, you should not overlook this valuable campus resource. The financial aid office and its Web site are the best places to begin looking for all types of assistance. Other organizations that can help students find the right college and money to help them attend are located across the United States. Many of these organizations are members of the National College Access Network or participate in a national effort called Know How to Go. Check their Web sites at http://www.collegeaccess.org/accessprogramdirectory and http://www.knowhow2go.org.
Very few students complete college without some type of financial assistance, and it is rare for students to cover all college expenses with only scholarships. The majority of students pay for college through a combination of various types of financial assistance: scholarships, grants, loans, and paid employment. Financial aid professionals refer to this combination as a “package.”
Although scholarships and grants are unquestionably the best forms of aid because they do not have to be repaid, the federal government, states, and colleges offer many other forms of assistance, such as loans, work-study opportunities, and cooperative education. You might also be able to obtain funds from your employer, a local organization, or a private group.
Need-based scholarships are based on both a talent and financial need. “Talent” can be past accomplishments in the arts or athletics, your potential for future accomplishments, or even where you are from. Some colleges and universities want to admit students from other states or countries. “Need” in this context means the cost of college minus a federal determination of what you and your family can afford to contribute toward those costs. Your institution might provide scholarships from its own resources or from individual donors. Donors themselves sometimes stipulate characteristics of scholarship recipients, such as age or academic major.
Merit scholarships are based on talent as defined above but do not require you to demonstrate financial need. It can be challenging to match your talent with merit scholarships. Most of them come through colleges and are part of the admissions and financial aid processes, usually described on the college’s Web site. Web-based scholarship search services are another good source to explore. Be certain that the Web site you use is free, will keep your information confidential unless you release your name, and will send you a notice (usually through e-mail) when a new scholarship that matches your qualifications is posted. Also be sure to ask your employer, your family’s employers, and social, community, or religious organizations about any available scholarships.
Grants are based on financial need but, like scholarships, do not have to be repaid. Grants are awarded by the federal government, state governments, and institutions themselves. Students meet academic qualifications for grants by being admitted to the college and maintaining grades that are acceptable to the grant provider.
Work-study jobs are reserved for students with financial need. Students receive work-study notices as part of the overall financial aid notice and then can sign up to be interviewed for work-study jobs. Although some work-study jobs can be relatively menial, the best options provide experience related to your academic studies while allowing you to earn money for college. The salary is based on the skills required for a particular position and the hours involved. Keep in mind that you will be expected to accomplish specific tasks while on duty, although some employers might permit you to study during any downtime.
Cooperative (co-op) education allows you to alternate a term of study (a semester or quarter) with a term of paid work. Engineering co-op opportunities are among the most common, and the number of co-op programs in health care fields is growing. Colleges make information about co-ops available through admissions and academic departments.
Most financial assistance requires some form of application. The application used most often is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Every student should complete the FAFSA by the earliest deadline of the colleges you are considering. Additional forms, such as the College Board’s Profile form and scholarship applications, might also be required and will be listed in colleges’ financial aid or admissions materials or by organizations that offer scholarships.
The amount of financial aid that you receive will depend on the cost of your academic program and what you or your family can pay as determined by FAFSA. Cost includes average expenses for tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation, and personal expenses. The financial aid office will subtract from the cost the amount that you and your family are expected to pay. In some cases, that amount can be as little as zero. Financial aid is designed to make up as much of the balance or “need” as possible.
If you earn average or better grades, complete your courses each term, and finish your program or degree on time, you should have no trouble maintaining your financial aid. It’s a good idea to check with the financial aid office before you drop classes to make sure that you will not lose any aid.
Some types of aid, especially scholarships, require that you maintain full-time enrollment and make satisfactory academic progress. Dropping or failing a class might jeopardize all or part of your financial aid unless you are enrolled in more credits than the minimum required for financial aid. Full-time financial aid is often defined as twelve credit hours per term. If you initially enrolled in fifteen credit hours and dropped one three-hour course, your aid should not change. Even so, talk with a financial aid counselor before making the decision to drop a course, just to be sure.
Remember that although the financial aid office is there to serve you, you must be your own advocate. The following tips should help:
File for financial aid every year. Even if you don’t think that you will receive aid for a certain year, you must file annually in case you become eligible in the future.
Meet all filing deadlines. Students who do not meet filing deadlines risk losing aid from one year to the next.
Talk with a financial aid officer immediately if you or your family experiences a significant loss (e.g., loss of a job, death of a parent or spouse). Don’t wait for the next filing period; you might be eligible for funds for the current year.
Inquire every year about criteria-based aid. Many colleges and universities have grants and scholarships for students who meet specific criteria. Such aid might include grants for minority students, grants for students in specific academic majors, and grants for students of single parents. Sometimes a donor will give money to the school’s scholarship fund for students who meet certain other criteria, even county or state of residence. Determine whether any of them fit your circumstances.
Inquire about campus jobs throughout the year because jobs become available after the beginning of the term. If you do not have a job and want or need to work, keep asking.
Consider asking for a reassessment of your eligibility for aid. If you have reviewed your financial aid package and think that your circumstances deserve additional consideration, you can ask the financial aid office to reassess your eligibility. The office is not always required to do so, but the request might be worth your effort.