Financing a college education
without a large bank account, wealthy parents, or superstar athlete abilities can seem an overwhelming task considering the enormous costs associated with attending even the smallest of institutions. When money, and not academic ability, is the only obstacle between you and the education needed to reach your goals, the future can seem very bleak indeed. Well, college-bound friends, fear no more! For everyone seeking to further their education, whether fresh out of high-school or ten years after the first Bachelor’s, Financial Aid funding, either in part or in full, is available and waiting for you. All it takes is a little research combined with motivation and patience. This Two-Step Guide, written from years of experience working the Financial Aid system, will help you understand the process and get the ball rolling. Applying for Student Financial Aid is, by no means, an simple task but the end result could mean a life’s dream is only two to four (or maybe a few more) years away!
1.Fill Out the FAFSA!
Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid ( FAFSA), is the single most important step in your college financing game plan. This application, provided by the U.S. Department of Education, is available online at FAFSA on the Web (www.fafsa.ed.gov) and it is absolutely free. Schools will use the information you provide on the FAFSA to determine if you qualify to receive federal student aid from grants, loans, and work study programs. While not all questions will apply to your individual situation, the ones that do will be very specific relevant to the school or schools to which you have applied, your intended Degree, and your current financial status and living situation. Read each question carefully and be as accurate as possible when answering. If you were employed within the prior year, be prepared to give the most recent figures from either your tax returns or last pay stub. If there are others living in your household, be prepared to give their information as well.
Once you have completed and electronically submitted your FAFSA, you will receive notification via e-mail, usually within 3 -7 days, stating that your SAR (Student Aid Report) is available and ready for review at the FAFSA website. Your SAR is a summary of all the information you entered on the FAFSA. If everything is correct, the calculated EFC (Expected Family Contribution) figure printed in the upper right corner will be the figure evaluated by your school(s) to decide which aid programs you are qualified for towards the upcoming school year.
The wonderful part of the FAFSA is that this one application, filled out each year and good for two semesters, will automatically submit your SAR/EFC to the colleges, universities, or trade schools you have applied to as well as to all Federal Loan and Grant Programs. At this time, while you are waiting for that important school award letter, you can begin to learn about the programs and possible money coming your way.
2.Research and Learn about the Financial Aid Programs available.
Every Financial Aid Program has its own qualifying requirements and how big a part your personal and financial situation will play varies with each program. You could be fresh out of high school or going for another Degree, still living and relying on parents or independently single and working, married with spouse and children or divorced and head of household, financially secure or barely getting by – the list goes on and on. For each of the aforementioned situations, there is educational financing to be found with just a little motivated research.
For this article, I will cover the standard five, most widely distributed forms of Student Aid available: the (2) Federal Government Stafford Loans, the Federal Perkins Loan, the Federal Pell Grant, and the Scholarship/Fellowship. Having a clear definition of each and knowing which programs require repayment and which programs do not will help you understand why you may qualify for all or just a few and what amounts of money might be offered to you.
Ã¢Â?Â¢Federal Government Stafford Loan – Subsidized. This loan is need based and your eligibility is determined by the information you provided on the FAFSA. This particular Stafford Loan is considered “subsidized” because the federal government pays any interest that accrues while you are in school, during the six-month grace period after graduation, and during any extensions – also known as deferments – you may be approved for. The end lender is a bank, credit union, or other participating private lender and although the loan may change hands throughout the years, you usually have anywhere from ten to twenty-five years to pay it back.
Ã¢Â?Â¢Federal Government Stafford Loan – Unsubsidized. This loan is available to all students regardless of need. This particular Stafford Loan is considered “unsubsidized” because you must make interest payments that accrue during school, in grace periods, and through approved deferments. You have the choice of pre-paying your interest to avoid the cost of the interest being added to the principal balance of the loan – also known as capitalization. As with the “subsidized” Stafford, the lender is a bank or private lender and, depending on the size of your loan, your payment plan could run for ten to twenty-five years.
Ã¢Â?Â¢The Federal Perkins Loan. This loan is made through participating schools and the award amount varies for both the undergraduate and the graduate student. Perkins Loans are awarded based on financial need, what other aid, if any, the student has been awarded, and the actual availability of loan funding the school has to work with. Most schools will give students who are also recipients of the Pell Grant top priority for the Perkins. Since the lender is your school, your eventual payments will be made directly to the school or its chosen agent and terms can run up to ten years for repayment.
Ã¢Â?Â¢The Federal Pell Grant. A Federal Pell Grant, unlike a loan, does not have to be repaid. Generally, Pell Grants are awarded only to undergraduate students who have not already earned a Bachelor’s. In some cases, a Pell Grant may be awarded for attending a post-baccalaureate teacher certificate program. Pell Grants usually set a foundation for financial aid to which other aid, such as scholarships, a Perkins Loan and/or a Stafford Loan, might be added.
Ã¢Â?Â¢Scholarships and Fellowships. Scholarships for undergraduate students – also known as fellowships when given to graduate students – are a form of aid, similar to the Pell Grant, which does not have to be repaid. Literally hundreds of thousands of scholarships and fellowships are awarded each year to new and continuing students. The money for these scholarships can come either directly from the schools being attended or from one or many of the several thousand outside sponsors located worldwide.
Scholarships and fellowships given from the student’s chosen school are generally reserved for those applicants with special qualifications and/or skills such as academic, athletic, or artistic talent. Scholarships given from outside sponsors are usually awarded to students who are interested in a certain field of study, who live in certain areas, who are members of groups considered to be of the minority, or who demonstrate a certain financial need.
How does one locate and apply for a scholarship or fellowship? If you are a senior in a high school that offers college counseling, seek information from your advisor, who should have plenty of resources available, and also from the teachers or departments that coincide with your academic, athletic, or artistic specialty. The colleges or universities to which you have applied also have information packets available for scholarship aid. Look to your churches and local businesses for possible scholarship donations. Do not be afraid to solicit for financial donations as long as you have the credentials to deem yourself worthy. Scholarship sponsors get terrific tax breaks.
Finally, a great way to learn about Financial Aid and seek out potential scholarships is by searching the Internet. As with everything in Cyberspace, however, you must proceed with caution to avoid the tricks and scams. A site I have found to be most helpful throughout the years and continually all-around informative is FinAid (www.finaid.org). Everything you ever wanted to know about applying for college funding is located on this site. To search for scholarships and fellowships online, it is best to use personalized searches, such as the searches listed on FinAid, that compare your background information with a database of award possibilities. Awards fitting your profile are identified as matches and the notification and information link is forwarded to you via e-mail. Fastweb Scholarship Search (www.fastweb.com) has the largest, most accurate, and most frequently updated award database and it is absolutely free. College Boards Funds Finder (www.collegeboard.com) and SRN Express (www.srnexpress.com) are also reputable, up-to-date, and free award search websites and, in most cases, you can apply right at the site for the scholarships you choose. Also, the website of the school you plan to attend will contain a wealth of information and downloadable applications to get you started.
It is important to understand that you, as a college bound, career-oriented individual, have the right to submit a FAFSA and/or apply for scholarships no matter what your personal and financial status may be. It is also important, however, to understand that no one is going to do it for you. So gather up your motivation to research, stay focused on your future goals, and get to work. Your education awaits!