Today’s skyrocketing college tuition prices mean most families can’t afford the whole bill on their own. Financial aid can help fill in the gaps. Here we explain everything you need to know about it, including:
Financial aid is any form of funding that helps you pay for college, including scholarships, grants, loans and work-study programs.
You have to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, to be eligible for most of it. We go into detail about the different types of aid below.
There are generally two ways to qualify for aid: through financial need and through merit.
Student loans don’t fit squarely into either category. Some, including federal direct subsidized loans, are need-based. Others, including private student loans, depend on your credit score. And any student attending an accredited school can qualify for federal direct unsubsidized loans, regardless of his or her financial need or merit.
You can get financial aid from a variety of sources including the federal government, your state, your college and private organizations like your local Rotary club.
Filling out the FAFSA will put you in the running for all federal aid and potentially some state and institutional aid. After that, check with your state’s higher education agency and the financial aid offices at the schools where you’re applying to see if you’re eligible for other state and institutional grants and scholarships. Then use a scholarship search tool to identify outside awards you may qualify for.
Grants are financial aid dollars you don’t have to pay back. You can get them from the federal government or your state government, and you typically have to have a financial need to qualify.
Scholarships also are financial aid dollars you don’t have to pay back, but they’re typically based on your merit rather than your financial need. You can get scholarships from your college or university or private organizations, such as the local Elks Lodge.
Work-study is a federal program that funds part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with a financial need. If you qualify for work-study, you’ll need to find an eligible work-study job on or near your campus and work to earn those dollars.
Federal student loans are fixed-interest-rate loans from the government. The direct loan program is the main federal loan program. Undergraduate students can borrow direct subsidized or unsubsidized loans. Graduate students can borrow direct unsubsidized or direct PLUS loans, and parents can borrow direct PLUS loans.
Private student loans are fixed- or variable-rate loans from a bank or credit union. To qualify, you typically need a good credit score or a co-signer who has good credit. Your rate will vary depending on your or your co-signer’s credit.
Sometime after you fill out the FAFSA, you’ll receive a financial aid award letter from each school that has accepted you. The award packages will vary but likely will include a mix of federal, state and institutional aid. If you’re applying for aid for fall 2017, you’ll likely receive your financial aid award letter in winter 2016 or spring 2017, depending on the school and when you submitted your FAFSA. You don’t have to accept all the aid you’re offered in your award package.
Not all financial aid is created equal, so be judicious about the type of aid you accept. Max out aid in the following order before taking on the next type:
If you haven’t already done so, fill out the FAFSA. Then, check your FAFSA status to make sure the Department of Education processed it correctly, review your Student Aid Report and correct any mistakes you made on your application. Before you know it, your award letters will arrive and you can choose a college that fits you and your budget.
Updated Oct. 13, 2016.