So you want to go to college. That’s great — and expensive! You have probably read or heard about the tremendous debt burdens college students are graduating with. And that’s scary. But it really doesn’t have to be the case for you. It can be tricky — and confusing — to sort out all the options you have to take care of the cost of college. This article can help get you through that and on a productive path.
Pursuing grants and scholarships should be at the top of your list. These are real “free money:” they never need to be repaid. Some are easy to get, some harder. But a lot are possible! You will work for it but that’s a good thing to get used to — you’ll need to work for that college degree too.
Don’t forget about work-study programs. It may sound tough to handle your course work as well as paid work but a lot of people do it. And the experience you get will also look good on your resume later …
Loans are also a possibility but they should be your last choice. They do need to be paid back — with interest. And that can add up more quickly than you think. So it’s worth taking time to explore the free money options:
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News Flash January 2017
UCSF (the University of California, San Francisco) has received a whopping gift of $500 million – that's right, half a billion dollars! They plan to use it in a number of areas such as faculty, research and – perhaps of greatest interest to you – student support. This is the largest single donation ever made to a public university. And $200 million of it will go to faculty and student financial aid. They specifically plan to increase scholarships for students in health care fields like dental, nursing, medical and pharmacy. So if you've had any interest in going to a great (but expensive) city like San Francisco for college this could be a great time to apply, especially if you will be looking for financial aid.
Even if you’ve heard this a thousand times it’s important to pay attention to. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the most important document you can take care of to get federal and state aid — and some private awards — to help pay for school. They are also critical for putting you in line for work-study assignments as well as for loan and other aid provided by the college or university. Submit it as early as as possible. Some funds are given based on first-come, first-served — you don’t want to apply and find out the money has run out!
Some students and families don’t bother filling out the FAFSA because they think they don’t qualify because their income is too high. Or they think it’s just too hard and detailed to complete. But the Department of Education has made changes that make the form less burdensome. They also will now accept older tax information than in prior years, so you don’t have to finish your most recent taxes early in order to complete the form. And soon they’ll be able to access the information directly from the IRS (with your permission of course.) So it can really take you 20 to 25 minutes to complete if you have all your basic information at hand. And remember it’s family income that is required, not just the student’s.
A caveat: when you go to find and fill out the FAFSA, make sure you are on the website fafsa.gov. Do not be fooled by others! And check out our review of FAFSA to get more information and tips.
There is also a form called the CSS Profile that is used by some schools. These schools prefer to use their own method to determine the impact of your family’s income and assets. In some ways it is tougher on families because it may include a portion of the net worth of homes owned. It also includes the net worth of small family businesses and includes a requirement for a minimum amount of the student’s contribution as well as an expectation for income from summer work. The number of children in college also has a smaller impact on total family assets and income considerations. On the positive side they do subtract the allowance for college savings and allowance for emergency reserve from the family’s assets.
Calculating Expenses When you’re working on figuring out how much money you’ll need for college remember that your costs will include more than “just” tuition, books, room and board. Don’t leave them out of your calculations and your plans about how to pay for everything! Here are just a few of the expenses you might not have thought of including in your plans:
Protect your electronics. Hopefully you have a laptop — but is it protected? * Invest in some virus protection software and remember to run scans regularly so you don’t risk losing this valuable asset!
- If you’re planning to join a social club or athletic team keep in mind that they probably have some annual dues.
- If you’re going to a college in a different area that has very different weather from where you live you may need to invest in some new clothing to deal with temperatures you’re not used to.
- Be aware of whether your college will let you print a specific number of pages each term before charging you anything. If so, use that allotment before you spend money on expenses for your own paper and printer. And calculate how much you expect to need to spend on printing.
The Pell Grant is of course the best known grant for students. It is a gem because you do not have to qualify based on anything but your income level. And you don’t even have to really compete for these grants except by getting your FAFSA application in as early as possible. These are awarded first-come, first -served so act fast. If you’re curious to know if you might qualify you can take our quick 2-minute Pell Grant quiz to find out.
If you have a really strong financial need you may qualify for the FSEOG or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant. You might receive anywhere from $100 to $4000 per year depending on how much other aid you are receiving. And again, they way you apply is by competing and filing your FAFSA.
If you don’t qualify for the Pell Grant based on your family’s income but you do qualify based on all other criteria you could receive a special grant if your parent or guardian was in the U.S. armed forces and was killed while in the service after September 11,2001 in Iraq or Afghanistan. The most you could receive is $5815, and you must be under 24 years of age or have been enrolled in college when you lost your parent or guardian.
These are really our favorite sources of funds for students. Yes, you have to do some work to win them. But there are SO many out there — and so many students ignore this gold mine or frankly are just too lazy to bother. That is definitely the wrong attitude when there are so many millions available to help you avoid being buried under a mountain of student debt that taxpayers are NOT going to forgive!
We’ll repeat: like grants, scholarships are awards of money that does not ever have to be repaid. They are a gift — and you can earn one (or more!). Yes some require that you be brilliant and rank at the top of your class with a super high gpa. But — and it’s an important but — many do not. Some are simply contests and the winner is chosen by chance. So you just have to find them and fill out the paperwork. Check out Scholarship Contests to learn where and how to find them. Some scholarships are given for specific areas of interest and intended professions so you already have an advantage if you know what you plan to major in and do after college. If you have artistic, musical or athletic talent you qualify for lots of scholarships. For that matter if you’re left-handed you qualify for some! More and more provide funds to students who have made community service an important part of their extra-curricular activities. And some just ask you to write an essay on a particular topic. It could be a topic you are passionate about, so they’re worth looking into.
Some more great resources exist to help you find scholarships because there are so many of them. Here are some:
- Free databases you can search based on your personal profile and interests. Check out our review of finaid and fastweb for a couple examples.
- Take a look at Sallie Mae’s website and you’ll find some resources there.
When you receive you financial aid letter after you submit your FAFSA, it may include a combination of grants, scholarships and work-study possibilities as well as student loans. Student Loans may be necessary but they should be your last resort. Some of these loans will probably be subsidized, which is good, and most likely will have interest rates lower than you can get from private (i.e. not government) lenders. You may accept or decline any part of the package. And while loans may not be ideal, they probably are more advisable than private loans — even though banks may try to make those look very appealing.
Finally, go back and re-read the advice about Grants and Scholarships. They are worth the effort!