If you’re looking into financial aid for college, you are not alone: over 80% of U.S. college students finance their education through a mix of scholarships, grants, work-study, and loans.
The average college student’s financial aid package consists of more than one type of funding. Some of these sources – like grants and scholarships – do not have to be paid back, while others – like loans – require you to pay back the money you have borrowed for your educational costs over a period of time.
Your overall goal with financial aid should be to proactively obtain grants, scholarships, and work-study. Everything else can be covered by student loans, if necessary. Finding the right balance for your situation is important but may be confusing if you are not sure where to start. Read more to learn some tips on finding the right financial support for your education!
Expected Family Contribution (EFC)
To apply for financial aid, you need to start by filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid Form (FAFSA). FAFSA is an online calculator from the U.S. Department of Education website that determines your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) to your college education. The remaining amount is presumed to be your financial need.
Your FAFSA is a key document. It is not only used as the basis to determine eligibility for federal aid, but also for programs administered by your college, the state, banks, private sources, non-profits, corporate sponsors, and others.
You can select up to 10 schools to send your FAFSA. You should carefully check each of your schools’ FAFSA deadlines as scholarship money is doled out on a first-come, first-served basis. State deadlines can be well before the federal deadline, while priority deadlines are often in March and April of your senior year of high school.
For a select group of mostly private colleges, you may be asked to fill out a CSS Profile. Though it requires some different information, the CSS is essentially these schools’ internal version of a FAFSA. Keep in mind that you may need to submit both FAFSA and CSS!
Grants are a form of financial aid that is primarily based on financial needs. Grants generally give you a few thousand dollars to defray the overall costs of your education and generally do not require repayment – unless you drop out.
The federal Pell Grant is offered to all need-based students. In 2022, the Pell Grant awarded $6,985 per year to all students with an Expected Family contribution under $5,846. Additionally, Pell Grants can be extended for up to six years.
Finding Grant Money
The federal government is only the first stop for financial support; thankfully there are also a wide array of need-based grants available for those who put in the time to apply for them.
Colleges administer their own need-based grant programs, which they may apply automatically to your financial aid offer.
Additionally, each state’s Department of Education can provide you with a list of grants and college funding programs for resident students.
Of course, you should set up an appointment with your college’s financial aid office and your high school college counselor. They can help you predict the aid you will need, and help you find multiple sources of funding.
But don’t stop there: A few clicks will help you find hundreds of specialized grant programs. There are grants for many different types of students, including women, minorities, international students, and the disabled. There are also grants from artistic, religious, and political organizations. In fact, there are grants available in almost every conceivable career field.
Why don’t more students take advantage of all this “free money?” The answer is simple: Most students don’t bother to look and submit complete applications.
Scholarships, like grants, do not require repayment. However, they do require that the student meet certain criteria (like maintaining a minimum GPA or playing on a sports team). These are referred to as “merit-based” awards, as opposed to need-based.
The gold standard of scholarships is the proverbial “full ride,” which refers to a scholarship that covers everything – not just your tuition, but all living costs, as well.
If you are awarded any scholarship, make sure that you read the fine print. If you fail to meet certain requirements – e.g. you change majors, or leave the sports team – you may not only forfeit your free ride, but you can be required to pay it all back!
As with grants, there are also hundreds of scholarship programs for different types of students. This is why it pays to start researching college scholarships as a junior in high school.
Your college will extend any federal work-study options available to you as part of your financial aid package, as well.
Under the federal government’s work-study program, for example, your college can provide you with a part-time job that helps you pay for your daily expenses. The federal government subsidizes your wages so the college doesn’t have to cover it all. These jobs are usually on campus and put $2000-$5000 in your pocket for personal expenses. Some of the best work-study jobs (like working in the library or staffing an administrative desk) even allow you to do your homework while on the clock.
The pay for work-study is typically low ($7-15/hour) for entry-level positions, so if you have opportunities to make better money, consider switching it up. Just recall that you may have to forfeit your work-study package if you accept other employment.
If you — like the vast majority of U.S. college students — cannot cover all of college with grants, scholarships, and work-study, you can be assured that student loans will be made available to you. Your financial aid office will administer your primary loan from the U.S. Department of Education, plus an additional private loan (if necessary) to reach your total financial aid amount.
Student loans are the easiest loans that you will ever apply for: in fact, all you have to do to qualify is to enroll in college. (We’ll save the concerns about student debt – such as the current rapid rise in interest rates — for another article.) Do keep in mind the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans, since the difference will add up over time!
Get Help with Financial Aid
If you still have questions about financial aid, consider a free video consultation with Empowerly. Our expert counselors can help you with a personalized financial aid plan and can help you chooses the right financial aid path for your circumstances.