In 2013 and beyond, millions of Americans will attend college, and most will need financial aid of some kind. The financial aid process can be difficult, confusing, and time-consuming. (But it all starts with FAFSA.) Unbelievably, despite the country being in the middle of one of the worst economic downturns in American history, the cost of attending colleges and universities continues to rise significantly every year, far exceeding the rate of inflation. At some point, economists say, the annual increase in college tuition and fees will have to stop, or college will become unaffordable to so many people that they will experience a significant loss in revenue. At that point they will have no choice but to cut costs, or they'll risk going under. However, we're not at that point yet, and it doesn't appear we'll be reaching it any time soon, which means that financial aid will continue to be critical for the average person who wants to attend college.
Thankfully, there are literally tens of billions of dollarsí worth of financial aid available for college and university students in America. It can be used to pay for tuition, room and board, various fees imposed by the college, textbooks, rent, living expenses, transportation, incidentals, etc. It should be noted that not every kind of financial aid can be used for every purpose on that list, but there's a form of financial aid available for every financial need a college student could face. In fact, according to some sources, there are over 600 college aid programs administered by state and federal government departments in America. On top of these, there are also thousands and thousands of scholarships available, from colleges themselves, small and large businesses, religious and non-profit groups, and wealthy individuals.
Financial aid not only comes from many sources, it also takes a variety of forms. The most common are grants, loans, scholarships, tuition forgiveness programs, and work-study programs. There are two broad categories of aid Ė merit based and need based. College aid based on merit is given for recognition for something the person has done or achieved. Popular forms of merit based aid are athletic scholarships, academic scholarships, and musical performance scholarships, but there are many different kinds. Aid based on need is exactly that; it's awarded to students who have shown that they can't afford to attend college without financial assistance. There are also some forms of aid which are hybrids, a combination of merit-based and need-based aid.
While the abundance of different forms and sources of financial aid, and the tens of billions of dollars they provide college students every year are wonderful things, thatís not the only part of the story. The other side is that precisely because there's so much college aid available, and it comes in so many different forms, navigating your way through the world of financial aid can be a complicated and overwhelming process. You've got to know what aid is available, who provides each kind, how to apply for it, deadlines, eligibility criteria, etc. For many people, it is a very confusing and intimidating process. The sad truth is that, year after year, many college students get far less money than theyíre entitled to. Some even postpone their dreams of going to college for lack of money because they didnít get all the aid they could have, and some wind up giving up on their college dream altogether. It doesnít have to be this way, and if you take advantage of all the free information and guidance on this site, it definitely wonít turn out that way for you. We're here to help. We created this website for people just like you, who want to understand as much as possible about the financial aid process, and receive as many grants and scholarships as possible, and make wise decisions about taking out student loans (if necessary). Thousands of people visit our website every week, and its popularity shows that youíll find what youíre looking for on here.
Youíll find a lot to take in here. This site is packed with information about all aspects of the financial aid process, from grants to loans to scholarships. You can learn how to fill out the "Free Application for Federal Student Aid" form, which is like the ďopen sesameĒ when it comes to financial aid. Other entities besides the federal government will use this form to determine if theyíll give you financial assistance, and if so, how much. So crossing every T and dotting every I on this important form is vitally important. Youíll need a whole bunch of information in order to fill it out correctly, and, in many cases, not just your own. If youíre still claimed as a dependent by your parents, youíll need to supply their financial information, too, such as salaries, savings account balances, etc.
On here youíll learn about the Pell Grant, which doesnít have to be repaid, and is the single biggest source of financial aid based on need. For most colleges and universities students, the Pell Grant youíre awarded will be the foundation they build the rest of their financial aid package around. Of course, there are deadlines you must meet to apply for a Pell Grant, and there are eligibility criteria that must be met (mainly that your household income canít be too high, which would disqualify you, since you wouldnít be seen as having financial need). Until quite recently, the Pell Grant was the only federal grant that most college students qualified for, but that has changed. A few years ago, Congress created the Academic Competitiveness Grants, which were first given out during the 2006-2007 school year. There are also some new federal grant programs geared toward people pursuing math and science degrees. You can read all about these new programs, the amount of aid they provide, eligibility requirements, etc., right here.
Once you get the form filled out and turned in, youíll receive whatís called a Student Aid Report, or SAR. These days itís usually sent by email, and it will be a brief summary of the information you provided. It will also contain your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is how much money the government expects you and your family to contribute to the cost of your college education, based on you household income. The people who process the forms will also forward this information to the colleges you selected when you filled out your form, so they can begin drawing up a financial aid offer. Because the SAR is so important to your future education goals, we have an entire page dedicated to explaining it in full so youíll know how to interpret it when you get yours.
Itís normal to be unsure of things when it comes to financial aid, especially if youíre also trying to keep up your grades in your current classes. Itís a daunting and involved process, and there are a lot of hoops to jump through, so youíll want to make sure youíve got everything covered. Thatís a big part of why we created this site. Weíre confident youíll find the answers to almost all of your questions right on this site. However, if a question does come up that we havenít answered, youíll find that, in addition to this site, there are a whole lot of resources on the internet that can help you if you happen to get stuck. And hereís a little tip that can save you a lot of time in your quest for financial aid. Any time youíre going to a search engine, such as Google, to find the answer to your question about financial aid (or any other subject for that matter), the fastest way to find the answer is to simply type the entire question into the search engine. Instead of searching for , say, ďFAFSAĒ, and then trying to dig through a bunch of pages to find the answer to your precise question, just put the question in directly. Most of the time, the search engine result will be exactly what youíre looking for, or very close to it.
Financial aid offices are busy places with mostly students working behind the counter at their work- study jobs. It is important that you realize all the schools that participate in Title IV funding follow strict federal guidelines when it comes to financial aid. However, never forget....they are there to assist you. That's their job. If you have questions about your SAR, your FAFSA, your PIN number (which you'll need to get as part of the process), or about any other aspect of financial aid, they should be more than willing to assist you. You'll find almost everything you need to know right here, but if you have a question that we haven't answered, or if it's about your specific personal situation, don't be shy about asking them for help. You can try an internet search first, but if all else fails, the financial aid office is there for you. You don't want to be a pest, calling them with every little question you could easily find the answer to on you own with a computer, but it's fine to ask for their assistance from time to time if you need it.
Whatever you do, donít get discouraged and give up, no matter how frustrated you get. Yes, applying for financial aid can be challenging, but never forget that the reward is worth it. Every dollar you receive by way of a grant or a scholarship, or a work study program is a dollar that you wonít have to borrow and pay back, with interest. Lately it seems as if the media has another story nearly every week about people who graduate from college with such a massive student loan payment that they canít make ends meet. In many cases this could have been avoided, if the student has maximized the money he received from work study, scholarships and grants. These should always be your top priorities when it comes to financial aid, as they donít have to be repaid. Weíre not knocking student loans, or saying that you shouldnít use them at all to finance your college education. However, you should be very prudent when it comes to borrowing money for college. Itís very easy to take on a lot of debt without even realizing it. Donít let it happen to you.
While youíre working your way through the maze of applying for financial aid, and trying to keep your chin up, never forget the ultimate goal youíre working for, which is a college degree. Your degree will open the door to a much brighter future, filled with better jobs, more opportunities, and higher salaries, and a more interesting, better life all around. Economists and education experts report that the difference between the lifetime earnings of the average college graduate and the lifetime earnings of someone without a college degree is nearly a million dollars. For someone with a masterís degree, the difference in lifetime earnings is approaching a million and a half dollars. These are huge numbers, and they are expected to get even bigger in the coming decades. Money may not be everything, but itís very important, and one of the biggest benefits of earning a college degree is the much improved quality of life it can lead to.
So take your time and get the most you can out of this site. Please read through all the sections carefully -- it'll help you along your way to a successful college career by helping you get the financial aid you need and deserve.
Last Updated: 08/20/2013