Capstone College and Career Advising

An overview of the financial aid process

February 18th, 2014 by

Great news! Your hard-working student has just been accepted to the school of their dreams. Now comes the hard part: How are you going to pay for this?

We all know that college just keeps getting more expensive. The cost of four years at a public university is approaching $100,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (Private schools? Close to double that.) Even parents who’ve been faithfully saving for years often have a hard time setting aside that much, especially if the family includes additional kids with who will be attending college.

But luckily, colleges have a vested interest in making sure accepted students actually enroll. That means there may be more financial help for you than you expect – as long as you do your homework.

First, fill out the forms. You may have heard of the FAFSA, short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It must be completed for your student to be considered for federal aid; the form can be submitted beginning January 1 for next school year. Since financial aid is usually given out on a first-come, first-served basis, it’s best to be ahead of the game. Even if you think you have too much in income or assets for your family to qualify for a federal grant or loan, it’s in your best interest to complete the FAFSA.

For one thing, states also use FAFSA to help distribute state aid. Plus, colleges use the FAFSA to determine your “expected family contribution,” which helps them determine how much tuition assistance you may be offered. The FAFSA takes into consideration factors besides income, such as number of siblings attending college and the age of the parents, so you may qualify for aid you weren’t expecting. Finally, many colleges require a completed FAFSA before they will consider a student for scholarship funds – even academic and merit awards.

That brings me to your second homework assignment: maximize your scholarship search. Everybody knows about the big awards like the National Merit scholarship or full-ride athletic scholarships. But most colleges offer lots of other awards, such as departmental scholarships, individual programs like engineering or business; honors scholarships; or arts scholarships. Does your student play an instrument, excel in an obscure sport, or love theater? There may be a scholarship that rewards those talents, even if the student is majoring in something else.

Make sure you search for programs offered by community organizations; foundations; churches; corporations; and employers – whether yours or your child’s. These scholarships may only offer a few hundred or a few thousand dollars, but when you’re looking at a total bill of $100,000, every penny helps.