For many students and their parents, the arrival of a college acceptance letter is a time to celebrate the years of hard work that it took to prepare for higher education - and a cause for concern over how much it's going to cost. Year after year, at most colleges and universities across the nation, expenses for tuition, fees, books and lodging have increased, and according to most experts that trend will continue. Fortunately, the total amount of student aid available, including grants, loans, scholarships, work-study programs and other sources has also increased, making college more affordable than many students and families realize. Here are some tips for tracking down the support that will put your child's dreams within reach.
Step One: Talk with school counselors. Advising students on financial aid options is one of the most important roles of school counselors. They should know about the different types of aid available and guide you and your child through the application process, which can be daunting. Counselors can also provide information on grants and loans from your state government, and those offered by the colleges and universities you're considering.
Step Two: Make sure your child is eligible for most types of available aid. To qualify for financial aid, your child must be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen. If your son would like to receive federal aid, he'll need to register with the U.S. Selective Service when he turns 18 (Selective Service registration is in fact required for all men aged 18 to 25). All students must also graduate from high school or earn a GED before receiving aid.
Step Three: Order the FAFSA. Most of the available aid comes from the federal government, and to access it you need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You'll use the information from your tax returns to complete the FAFSA, which you can submit by mail or online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. The FAFSA site is a good source of information about all of the federal aid available, and it includes a link to the financial aid offices for most states as well.
Step Four: Understand the full range of federal aid options available. Grant options include The Pell Grant and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, which are offered to students from families in the lowest income brackets. Loan options include the Federal Stafford Loan, which has a variable interest rate, and the Federal Perkins Loan, which has the lowest fixed rate of any federal student loans. You can also consider Federal Work-Study programs, which provide jobs that pay minimum wage or above.
If you show significant financial need, your child might also qualify for a Subsidized Stafford Loan, which does not start accruing interest until after you graduate from college, saving you a considerable sum. If you don't show enough need, your child may be eligible for an Unsubsidized Stafford Loan, which isn't based on need. Unsubsidized loans begin accruing interest as soon as the money is disbursed, which means the debt will grow while your child attends college, although interest rates on student loans are generally very low. You can learn more about Stafford Loans at www.staffordloan.com, and about many more loan and grant options at the U.S. Department of Education's Federal Student Aid Web site, located at: studentaid.ed.gov.
Step Five: Pursue the full range of available scholarships. Many scholarships are available to students interested in a particular field of study, which makes them perfect for students who already have careers in mind. Having an athletic or artistic talent can also open the door to scholarships for students who earn special recognition for those talents. Awards are also available for those in underrepresented groups, such as Hispanic and African-American students, and those who will be the first in their family to attend college. Many scholarships are based on academic merit, but others - from businesses, civic and religious groups and corporate and financial organizations - are awarded based on family income or demographic factors. Creating a checklist of your child's talents, interests, and demographic factors will help you both hone in on the various angles you can pursue.
Step Six: Remember the value of high achievement. Many loans and grants are increasingly based more on academic merit than financial need. This is one more reason your child should develop good study skills and get extra help to address any issues that are impacting grades. It's also important to raise the bar as high as possible by taking Advanced Placement, honors or other advanced courses. Good performance in these courses is especially crucial if your child is hoping to receive aid from colleges and universities because it shows decision-makers that he or she is well-qualified for college-level work - and well positioned to ensure the institution's financial investment pays off.