All of the information below (and more!) is offered at St. Vincent’s Financial Aid Night each year – be sure to mark you calendar and attend this important evening!
Once you have narrowed your options, applied to the colleges of your choice, and been notified of admission, it is time to think about how to pay for it. The whole process of applying for financial aid intimidates many students and their parents – and with good reason, for this is one of the most complicated aspects of getting to college.
There is no doubt that finding the money you need to attend your first choice college is challenging – but it is easier to take a one-step-at-a-time approach, just as you did when you explored your college options and went through the admission process. Listed below are the basic steps needed to apply for available financial aid. Remember to follow all deadlines, keep a copy of all paperwork you send, and meet all qualifying criteria!
Step 1 – Research sources of aid. There are four basic types of financial aid: scholarships, grants, work-study, and loans.
Scholarships can come in a variety of forms – you must be diligent about seeking out all forms of scholarships available. It is impossible to list every scholarship in one place, so look everywhere you can. Scholarships can be need-based (with factors like economic hardship, socio-economic disadvantages, first generation college students, minorities, etc.), or merit-based (with factors such as GPA, test scores, special talents, awards earned, National Merit, essay-writing contests, etc.). Look for scholarships at the websites linked above, in scholarship reference books (there are many – go to a local bookstore- some of the best are Peterson’s, College Board, Princeton Review, Barron’s, etc.), college software programs (Fundfinder, CollegeView, etc.), and at local and national businesses. Most students hear about the big company scholarships, e.g., Target, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, etc. – but there are literally thousands of scholarships that are locally based or specific to a certain set of criteria. Sometimes these can be less difficult to earn if you dig deep enough to locate scholarships that match your strengths and abilities. However, it is a myth to say that there are millions of dollars in unclaimed scholarships each year. While you can find a myriad of scholarships, it is more important to find the ones that fit your situation or talent. Many scholarships ask for a lot of information, including a lot of paperwork to fill out, often with an essay required or a speech to give, etc. Some scholarships go unclaimed because students do not want to put that much effort into the application. If you are dedicated and persevere, the more labor-intensive scholarships can yield positive results. Scholarships do not need to be repaid. Be aware that some scholarships are renewable for all four years of college, while most are one-time awards. You may win many scholarships out of high school and attend a high-priced school based on this aid only to discover your sophomore year that you have a much bigger bill to pay without renewable scholarships.
Grants are essentially ‘free money.’ They do not need to be repaid and are awarded for a variety of reasons, usually based on a formula specific to individual colleges or university systems. They can originate from the government (e.g., Pell Grant, Cal Grant) or directly from the school. There is always a criteria to be met, whether it is academic, economic need, special talent potential, demographics, or athletics (Division I grants), or a combination of the above factors. You must demonstrate you meet the criteria in order to be awarded a grant. Do not assume colleges or federal and state governments know your financial situation, GPA, or anything else about you! Be assertive in informing financial aid offices and government agencies about your situation.
Work-study programs are primarily federally funded and allow colleges to hire students for employment. Many private colleges have their own work-study programs in addition to the federally supported program. Students are generally limited to a maximum number of hours they may work each week. This form of aid is often only one part of the entire financial aid award package offered by a school, as it will not cover the entire cost of attendance for the students.
Loans are rapidly becoming by far the most common type of aid offered. Student loans, which have lower interest rates than other types of bank loans, may be sponsored by the federal government or individual colleges and universities. Commercial financial institutions such as Bank of America, Edfund, etc., do a brisk business in student loans. Loans must be repaid with interest, generally beginning six months after you graduate or leave school. There are different types of federally sponsored loans (Stafford, Perkins, etc.), and some have subsidized interest rates. The federal government or the school may also sponsor parent loans. PLUS loans are loans with a lower-than-conventional interest rate that parents take out on behalf of their son/daughter, with repayment beginning while the student is in school (first loan payments usually begin after the last disbursement of the academic year).
Step 2 – Complete the FAFSA. Every student must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to be considered for federal financial aid. Every school asks for the FAFSA even if you are certain you will not qualify for federal aid. The colleges use the information on the FAFSA to determine their own financial aid awards. This form is the universal starting point for examining what your financial needs are. You can download the form from www.fafsa.ed.gov. FAFSA forms cannot be submitted until January 1 (or after) during your senior year of high school, and the information is based on the previous year’s tax returns and financial information. Try to submit the form as soon as possible after January 1 as some need-based federal and state programs (Pell Grant, Cal Grant, etc.) have a limited amount of money to disburse, and it is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis (all other things being equal, i.e., correct information given, deadlines met, etc.).
The FAFSA is important for another reason also – it can help you see what the college is looking for in terms of your own contribution to your college costs. Most colleges use a formula similar to this:
COA – EFC = Amount of aid offered. COA refers to Cost of Attendance and includes tuition (or fees if it is the UC, CSU system), room, board, books, other student fees, incidentals, transportation, etc. In other words, colleges attempt to give you a realistic picture of the TOTAL cost of attending their school and not just the basic tuition. Subtracted from this is the EFC or Expected Family Contribution. This figure is determined by the FAFSA. The federal government uses its own methodology to calculate what it considers to be your (and your parents’) ability to pay for college. Colleges expect you and your parents to come up with that amount through savings, work, loans, etc. They subtract that amount from the cost of attendance and try to offer financial aid to cover the remaining amount.
Step 3 – Complete additional financial aid forms and applications. Many private and some public colleges request the PROFILE form. The PROFILE is a needs analysis report and asks for additional information beyond what you reported on the FAFSA. You can register for the PROFILE at www.collegeboard.com. Other colleges may request you fill out financial aid applications unique to them. It is important to fill out every form the college asks you to since they are trying to determine ways to grant you financial aid. Often financial deadlines are March 15 (Cal grant is always March 2), but check with each individual college to be sure of the deadline. After you have filled out the forms, many private colleges will use their own institutional methodology to determine your need for financial aid, and it may differ from the federal methodology. Do not hesitate to call the financial aid office and ask specific questions. It is important to keep informed and not assume anything. The more persistent you are in finding out the exact offer, the sooner you will know if you can afford to attend.
Step 4 – Apply for grants and scholarships. Always do this before you apply for loans since you do not need to repay grants or scholarships. Cal grants are based on two criteria – family income and GPA. GPA verification forms must be filed by March 2 – we do this for you at St. Vincent’s by filing GPA verification for the entire senior class electronically. Other grants and scholarships will have different deadlines. Do not miss deadlines or you may lose money!
Step 5 – Review your financial aid award letter. Check to make sure the college has the correct data to work from, and then evaluate their offer. If you have new information or changed financial circumstances that could affect your award, notify the college immediately. Remember you do not have to accept the full amount of loan money offered. You may be able to spend less on transportation, books, incidentals, etc. than the college estimated in the cost of attendance and therefore get by with less money borrowed. Make sure you review the SAR (student aid report) you receive from the federal government after you have filed the FAFSA. This will tell you the EFC (expected family contribution) amount (usually in the top right hand corner). Check to see that your EFC matches the amount the college expects you to contribute. There are generally some common elements in financial aid packages from different schools. Different factors will influence the amount and type of aid offered. Some schools may not be able to meet a student’s full financial need with the resources they have available. Such a situation is called gapping.
Some last reminders:
- Do your homework – set time aside to check out scholarship databases, reference books, etc. as often as possible to locate sources of money for college.
- Seek locally – ask your local librarian, the college admission office, your parents’ alma mater, your parents’ employers, your employer, local organizations and clubs, your coach, etc. about scholarships they have heard about.
- Become familiar with financial jargon.
- Many small liberal arts colleges want to enhance their reputations by admitting high achieving students. This helps their image with higher average test scores, etc. when recruiting new students. Sometimes these colleges will offer an ‘incentive’ or discount on tuition to students they find attractive candidates. Students who are competitive for admission to highly selective schools may find that they are not offered much in financial aid since everyone else admitted is also highly qualified. A smaller school may want to offer you more money in institutional grants and scholarships as a way of raising its prestige. If you like the college and are sure you can get a quality education equal to that of the ‘name’ college, this can be an excellent way of financing your education.
- Look into ROTC programs. If you are willing to complete a tour of duty in the military after college, ROTC offers scholarships of up to $16,000 a year for tuition, plus a living allowance of $150 per month for the academic year.
- Be on the lookout for scholarship scams and frauds! More and more unscrupulous companies are looking toward duping students with promises of guaranteed scholarships, private information about scholarships, and so on. They will often charge hefty fees and tell you that they will do all the work and you do not need to do anything (except give them your credit card number!), or that you are a ‘finalist’ in a bogus scholarship contest and need to pay a fee to receive it. The truth is that there are no ‘secret’ ways of getting money for college – it just takes a lot of hard work, research, filling out applications, and staying organized.
- Remember you need to fill out the FAFSA every year you attend college, not just your senior year of high school.
- Be realistic and make mature choices. Attend the college that you can afford- if you have a strong desire to attend your dream college and have worked hard to be admitted, but it is a very expensive college, decide if it is worth it to you to pay off loans for ten years after you graduate. It may be that you will be well prepared for a great career, and it is worth it to you to take on college debt. If it is not, do not put yourself and your parents into a situation that will substantially hurt you financially.
Financial Aid and Scholarships
A list of available scholarships for students can be found on Naviance Family Connection. In addition, here are the links to financial aid forms and a good scholarship search engine: