- Understand the importance of researching and applying for financial aid every year even if you don’t think you qualify for assistance.
- Identify key differences among scholarships and grants, student loans, and work study programs.
- Avoid excessive student loans and setting yourself up for future financial difficulties.
You may already be receiving financial aid or understand what types of financial aid are available. Even if you are not receiving financial aid, however, you should understand the basics because your financial situation may change and you may need help paying for college. You owe it to yourself to learn about potential types of aid you might receive.
Every college has a financial aid office that can give you information about standard financial aid programs. Certain kinds of financial aid, however, such as private scholarships, are not administered by the college, so you may need to do some research. There are three main categories of financial aid:
- Scholarships and grants (money or tuition waivers that do not need to be repaid)
- Student loans (money that does need to be repaid, usually starting after graduation)
- Work study programs (money that is earned for tuition or other expenses)
These three types of aid are described in the following sections. Remember that this section only introduces these types of financial aid—be sure to get more information from your college’s financial aid office and the online sources listed here.
Applying for Financial Aid
For financial aid administered by your college, often only one general application form is required, along with detailed information on your financial situation (and those of your parents or guardians, if you are receiving their support) provided by filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). If you have not already done this application, learn more at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov. Virtually all colleges require the FAFSA.
Outside loans and scholarships are generally applied for separately. Follow these general rules to ensure you receive any aid for which you are qualified:
- Apply to your college for financial aid every year, even if you do not receive financial aid in your first year or term. Your situation may change, and you want to remain eligible at all times in the future by filing the application.
- Talk to the financial office immediately if you (or your family) have any change in your circumstances.
- Complete your application accurately, fully, and honestly. Financial records are required to verify your data. Pay attention to the deadlines for all applications.
- Research possible outside financial aid based on other criteria. Many private scholarships or grants are available, for example, for the dependents of employees of certain companies, students pursuing a degree in a certain field, or students of a certain ethnic status or from a certain religious or geographical background, and the like.
- Do not pay for financial aid resource information. Some online companies try to profit from the anxieties of students about financial aid by promising to find financial aid for you for a fee. Legitimate sources of financial aid information are free.
Scholarships and Grants
Scholarships and grants are “free” money—you do not have to pay them back, unlike student loans. A scholarship is generally based on merit rather than demonstrated financial need—based on past grades, test scores, achievements, or experiences, including personal qualifications such as athletic ability, skills in the arts, community or volunteer experiences, and so on. Don’t make the mistake of thinking scholarships go only to students with high grades. Many scholarships, for example, honor those with past leadership or community experience or the promise of future activities. Even the grades and test scores needed for academic scholarships are relative: a grade point average (GPA) that does not qualify for a scholarship at one college may earn a scholarship at another. Never assume that you’re not qualified for any kind of scholarship or grant.
A grant also does not need to be paid back. Most grants are based on demonstrated financial need. A grant may be offered by the college, a federal or state program, or a private organization or civic group. The largest grant program for college students is the federal government’s Pell Grants program (Figure 11.5 “Student Grant Programs from the Federal Government”). Learn more about Pell Grants and other scholarship and grant programs from your college’s financial aid office or the online resources listed later.