Looking at college price tags can be a daunting task. But, before you get too worked up, know that the tuition prices you see are likely higher than the amount you’ll actually have to pay.
There are a number of ways to receive financial assistance to pay for college. It often comes in the form of grants, scholarships, and loans. The amount of assistance you can expect to receive is largely based on your family’s financial situation, grades, and test scores.
Of course, you want to get the most money in financial aid as you possibly can. The process, at times, can be frustrating and confusing. Entering the financial aid process informed, though, will help you stay cool, calm, and collected.
With that in mind, we at The University Network (TUN.com) have created a step-by-step guide, equipped with helpful tips, to help you maximize your financial aid.
Fill out the FAFSA as early as possible
The federal government is the single largest student aid provider in the United States. Each year, the Department of Education gives out more than $120 billion worth of grants, work-study, and loan funds to help students pay for college.
To be eligible for these funds, you have to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application For Student Aid), which you can do when the form is released on October 1. Typically, deadlines to submit the FAFSA fall around June 30, but each school you’re applying to could have a different deadline. Nonetheless, you’ll want to fill out the FAFSA as soon as it is released, because schools often award aid on a first-come, first-serve basis.
There are a few documents, including your family’s tax returns and a bank statement, that you’ll have to get together before filling out your FAFSA. A full list of the documents, along with any background information you’ll need, is available in TUN’s complete guide to the FAFSA.
In addition to submitting your FAFSA as early as possible, there are a few other tricks you’ll want to know to maximize the amount of aid you can expect to receive.
As a general rule, it’s important to remember that the less money and assets that your family appears to have, the more you can expect to receive in aid.
So, try to avoid overstating your family’s money and assets on your FAFSA. Only include financial information that the FAFSA requires you to.
At the same time, you don’t want to lie or make any incidental mistakes on your FAFSA. When listing your adjusted gross income, for example, make sure you list your true “adjusted gross income” as it is listed on your tax return.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that you have to complete the FAFSA every year that you’re in college to continue to receive aid.
Check out state aid opportunities
States often also offer students opportunities to receive aid, which commonly come in the forms of grants and scholarships and don’t need to be paid back.
While, typically, students can only use state-based aid to help pay for in-state schools, that’s not always the case. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) offers a great resource, which you can use to explore the many grants and scholarships available in your state.
There are, of course, annual deadlines to apply for these state-based aid opportunities. So, start your search as soon as possible.
Research scholarships offered by colleges
In addition to the grants and loans, many colleges and universities automatically offer applicants scholarships as a part of their financial aid packages. To earn them, all you typically have to do is apply to the school.
Most often, these scholarships are not based on financial need. Instead, they are merit-based and reward students for academic, artistic or athletic achievements.
Once you send in your application, colleges and universities will look at criteria like your GPA, test scores, and extracurriculars to determine what scholarships you’ll receive.
Some schools rely on merit-based scholarships more than others. Small liberal arts schools, like Swarthmore College and Washington & Lee University, are known for offering a lot of money in merit-based aid. And other institutions, including all of the Ivy League schools, don’t offer merit aid at all.
Many colleges and universities also offer legacy scholarships to applicants whose family member(s) are alumni. But those have met with criticism and have become less popular as a result.
If you’re interested in a specific school but are worried about being able to afford tuition, check out some of the scholarships the school offers. While some of these scholarships are one-time awards worth only a couple of hundreds of collars, others can cover your full tuition. Sometimes there are stipulations, though, like maintaining a certain GPA. So, you’ll want to do some in-depth research.
Search for outside scholarships
There are also thousands of outside scholarships sponsored by private organizations, which you can start applying to now. These scholarships come in many forms and award students with various amounts of money.
The Taco Bell Foundation, for example, offers the annual Live Más Scholarship, through which students can earn up to $25,000 by submitting a video describing their passion and how they will use it to make a difference. Grades, essays, and test scores do not matter.
There are scholarships out there for everyone. And, conveniently, we at TUN offer a scholarship search engine that you can use to find the best scholarships for you and start applying now.
But it is important to note that, in most cases, if you win an outside scholarship, you have to report it to your college or university. And the majority of schools then may consider these scholarships as part of your family’s resources, meaning they will reduce your financial aid package by the dollar amount you receive in outside scholarship.
However, most schools have favorable policies and take money away from your loans before they touch grants.
And in 2017, the state of Maryland passed a law that public colleges and universities can only take away money from a student’s financial aid package if a student’s total financial aid, including the outside scholarship, exceeds the total cost of attendance. Since then, a number of states, including Washington and New Jersey, have followed suit and proposed similar laws.
Of course, you will want to check the individual policies of the institutions you’re interested in, but, in most cases, it will still benefit you to apply for and earn outside scholarships.
Share financial aid info with schools
When you submit your FAFSA form, the financial information you include is sent to all of the colleges and universities you list. You can list up to 10 schools that you’re interested in, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve applied for admission at the schools yet. Each school you list will have access to your FAFSA within a few days of you submitting it. But, they won’t necessarily reach out to you with an aid offer right away. Those typically come attached with, or soon after, college acceptance letters.
Additionally, some colleges and universities might require you to fill out a College Scholarship Service (CSS) profile. The CSS, which is administered by the College Board, goes into much more detail than the FAFSA does and takes into account items like home equity and medical expenses.
Of course, you’ll want to check the policy of each school you’re interested in to see if a CSS profile is something you’ll need to fill out. If so, you can fill out your CSS profile as soon as October 1. And according to the College Board, “you should submit no later than two weeks before the earliest priority filing date specified by your colleges.”
Throughout this process, it’s also helpful to know whether the schools you apply to are “need-blind” or not. Need-blind colleges and universities still require you to submit your financial data through FAFSA and perhaps the CSS, but the information you provide will only be used to calculate your financial aid package after you’ve already been accepted.
Compare your aid packages
Once your acceptance letters and financial aid packages come in from schools, you get to make a decision on where to spend the next four or five years of your life.
Typically, financial aid packages come with a mix of grants, scholarships, and loans. You’ll want to review each financial aid package you receive carefully and prioritize those that are grant- and scholarship-heavy, because you don’t have to pay them back (unlike loans).
To figure out the net price — the total out-of-pocket cost — that you’ll have to pay for each school, take the total annual cost of attendance and subtract the total number of grants and scholarships that school is awarding you.
You may be happy to find that, in recent years, dozens of colleges and universities have moved to no-student-loan policies. Some only offer this for low-income, Pell-eligible students, but others, including Brown University, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford, extend the offer to all students.
But if loans are still included in your financial aid packages, it is important to take a close look. What are the interest rates? By when do they need to be paid back?
And if work-study is included in your financial aid packages, know that it is a federal program that some schools administer to provide students part-time jobs. You will be working to earn this aid, and the money is neither a guarantee nor awarded up-front.
Appeal your financial aid package
If there’s one school that you really want to go to and you didn’t receive as much aid as you were hoping for, it is okay to negotiate. Depending on the circumstances, colleges and universities may be open to awarding you more aid.
If this is something you’re interested in, be sure to contact the school’s financial aid office to ask about the appropriate steps for financial aid appeal. But before you do, you may want to run the numbers and come up with the exact amount that you need.
Most financial aid offices will ask you to write an official letter of appeal, which is something one of TUN’s employees did before she went to college to earn an extra $7,000 in aid. For tips on how she did it, click here.
In most cases, your family must have had some sort of significant change to its financial situation since you completed the FAFSA for colleges to recognize your appeal. Colleges will be more likely to respect your application for appeal if your family has endured setbacks like a recent loss of income, a death in the family or unexpected medical bills. So, be sure to include the details in your letter of appeal.
Throughout the appeal process, it is important to recognize your value. It may benefit you to mention a competing offer, for example.
But, you don’t want to come across as an aggressive negotiator. Colleges may want you, but they don’t always need you. And they have a limited amount of resources that they can allocate to each student.
It’s also important to note that you can appeal your aid throughout any point of your college career, not only when you’re going into freshman year. If your family experiences a significant change in its financial situation during your time in college, don’t be afraid to reach out to your institution’s financial aid office.
It can be a drag, but applying for financial aid is a crucial step in the college process. The sheer amount of work, thought, and energy it takes can be overwhelming. But if you follow the steps in this article, do your research and set aside ample time, you’ll be able to maximize the amount of financial you receive for college. And that’s something you’ll thank yourself for later on.