While many students start thinking about the college/university they are interested in attending at the end of their junior year and start of their senior year of high school, very few are thinking about how they will afford college and the college financial aid process.
When does the college financial aid process start? It really should start many years before a student’s senior year of high school. Saving for college early is probably the best step a family or student can take to be able to afford the school of their choice. College savings accounts (such as 529 accounts) are a great way to invest for one’s future education.
What if you haven’t started saving for college? Are you behind the financial aid process if you haven’t saved early? Will you be able to afford the college of your choice without this saving? These are all very good questions. The answer is that, while saving for college is ideal, many have not done so. You are not behind the financial aid process and may still be able to afford the college of your choice by being diligent, prepared and applying early.
The college financial aid process starts much earlier for those who want to and have the means of saving for a college education, but for most prepared students, it starts in the earlier part of their senior year of high school. During the fall of one’s senior year or earlier, start researching scholarships offered through the colleges one is interested in and, most importantly, that come from external sources. There are millions of dollars in scholarships from multitudes of organizations given each year. This is where diligence and preparation can play a part. Researching and applying for scholarships that one qualifies for can be a time consuming and arduous task, but there are many sites that can help. To name a few, fastweb.com, finaid.org, scholarshipsamerica.org, scholarships.com, scholarshipjunkies.com and nerdwallet.com are some scholarship engines that do the matching for students.
A student will still need to apply for those that they are eligible for (and a good, well-written essay never hurts). In doing this, we recommend creating an email account specifically for this purpose. Finding scholarship sites and scholarship databases can be a tricky task as well. Many of these sites are funded by company ads or are used to obtain email addresses for solicitation purposes. By using a specific email account for scholarship applications, you will be able to clean your regular email of the “junk mail.” Plan accordingly, know what material is needed for the scholarships, and know your deadlines. Most outside/external scholarship deadlines are through April of the year the student will start college in the fall, but there are still some that linger with later deadlines. Be diligent with this process.
Students with full-ride scholarships are few, but I have seen it happen on numerous occasions. Most students will end up with a few dollars to help supplement what the college has to offer. Any help can still be great help.
Applying to the colleges one’s interested in early is also important. The college application, along with completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) early, helps a student to be considered for all available aid. The FAFSA, at www.fafsa.gov, opens for the upcoming school year on Jan. 1. I would recommend completing the FAFSA within the month of January for complete consideration of all aid. Some outside/external scholarships may require the FAFSA be completed as well. State grant deadlines are earlier and earlier because of limited funding.
School’s federal and institutional campus based aid can also be limited. Applying early will give a student the best chance for consideration of all aid available. Students will also receive their financial aid package from the schools that they applied to first. Most of the college financial aid award packages are sent during the months of February to April. With the FAFSA, college financial aid packages will typically consist of any federal need and non-need based scholarships or grants, state need-based grants, institutional merit scholarships, institutional conditional scholarship/grants, institutional need-based grants, institutional and federal need and non-need based loans as well as any need-based work study that one would be eligible for.
While many think of financial aid as scholarships and grants, financial aid actually entails scholarships, grants, federal and private educational loans and work study. While we all want the elusive “full-ride” scholarship that pays for everything while attending the school of one’s choice, the reality of it is that the vast majority of students will use a combination of scholarships, grants, loans and possibly work study to pay for their education. Using these resources to help one pay for college is an investment for one’s future. Compare the colleges of choice, tuition costs with the financial aid package offers to determine the “bottom line” or “net price” to attend the schools. Compare financial aid packages carefully. Not all offers are alike. Not all aid will be listed on an award letter as well. Typically, additional loans such as parent or private educational loans are not listed on award letters but can be options to help pay the balance. Weigh the level of interest and benefits of the schools with the financial aid packages to determine the right college to attend.
Don’t be afraid to call or email the college financial aid offices to ask questions as well. Follow up with the financial aid office if you have concerns or financial issues. It never hurts to ask. Financial aid is a myriad of rules, regulations and different types of awards.
In order to choose the college of one’s interest and to be considered for all types of aid, be prepared, be diligent and apply early to be considered for all eligible aid and to make the best financial decisions for one’s future.