There’s no way around it: getting the degree or certificate that will connect you with your future costs money. No matter the type of education students pursue after high school, cost will often play a factor in not only determining where students go to school, but, in many cases, impact whether or not they complete their degree and find the career they’ve long sought.
Many students and families rely on private student loans which come with interest rates that can feel daunting not only during school but in the years after. However, thanks to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), students are discovering many roads to free money that can help reduce their student debt and help them succeed.
Completing the FAFSA arms students with a tool, a baseline of financial information and need for aid that can be used for a variety of state and federal grants, as well as private scholarships. There are many ways for students to find free money that require nothing more than the time to research and apply in order to receive some financial help for their education. Here are few places to start:
State Grants and Scholarships
The state of Iowa provides funding for grant programs to help with higher education costs. Students who receive Iowa-funded grants and scholarships must be Iowa residents, attend an eligible Iowa college or university and meet other criteria specific to each program. Scholarships and grants do not have to be repaid and can significantly reduce college expenses. The chart below provides an overview of the application requirements for each scholarship and grant administered by Iowa College Aid. For specific criteria, go to IowaCollegeAid.gov.
Every year, MILLIONS of dollars in private scholarships go unclaimed; not because no qualified candidates applied, but because no candidates applied at all.
Scholarships are available from private sources including businesses, foundations, religious organizations, community groups and fraternal organizations. High school counselors are excellent resources for scholarship information, as are libraries and college financial aid administrators.
Web searches also allow students and families to explore scholarship possibilities. Reputable organizations will NOT charge fees for scholarship searches.
Think of finding scholarships like a part-time job. If you spend 5 hours researching and applying for scholarships that lead to a $1,000 scholarship, you’ve just made $200 per hour. That’s pretty good money for working part-time! Here are some ways to track down private scholarship opportunities:
- Work: Have your parents ask whether their employers offer college scholarships to children of employees.
- School networks: Many high schools offer scholarships for graduating students. Also check with the area alumni association of your college.
- Community organizations: Many community organizations sponsor local scholarships. Check your city’s website or call your local community center for lists of organizations in your area.
- Religious organizations: Find out if your place of worship offers scholarships. If not, it might partner with other organizations.
- Field of study: Your college might offer scholarships specific to your major. Contact your program department.
College and University Scholarships
Your college or university might provide scholarships or financial awards from its institutional funds. Often, institutional scholarships go to recipients who meet specific requirements related to particular areas of study, academic achievements, outstanding talent, leadership, athletic ability or other criteria. Contact the financial aid office and ask about institutional programs available through the college or through on-campus organizations.
Federal grants are awarded to both Iowa resident and non-resident students. Eligible students can receive these federal grants for attendance at any postsecondary education institution participating in the program. Federal grants include:
- Pell Grants
Pell Grants are funded by the federal government to assist the neediest undergraduate students. The maximum award is $5,920 for the 2017-18 award year.
- Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants
Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG) are based on financial need. Eligible recipients receive between $100 and $4,000 per year. Not all colleges participate.
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grants (TEACH Grants)
The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant program helps students in teaching preparation programs. In exchange for a TEACH Grant, recipients agree to serve as full-time teachers in high-need fields in public or private non-profit elementary or secondary schools that serve low-income students. These grants are available to eligible undergraduate, post-baccalaureate and graduate students for a maximum amount of $4,000 per year. Students must meet academic standards.
Taking the time to track down free money for school now may seem like hard work, but the impact it will make in saving students from debt as they start their careers will be an even greater reward as they start their careers.
By now, students and families with an eye toward college, or any kind of education beyond high school, should have a pretty good understanding of just how important the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is to helping them achieve their goals. If not, here’s a good place to get started with the FAFSA.
Filing the FAFSA is crucial to getting money for school. But what happens after submitting the FAFSA? Here are some things for families to look out for, as well as some things to remember when dealing with information
Student Aid Report
After completing the FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education will process the data and compile the Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR will be sent to families and the colleges selected during the FAFSA. If an email address was provided during the application, instructions to access an online copy of the SAR will be emailed; otherwise it will arrive snail mail.
Typically, applicants can access their SAR within three to five days if the FAFSA was filed electronically (approximately three weeks if filed by paper). The SAR contains the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) as well as initial information about Pell Grant eligibility. Colleges and universities use the EFC to determine student eligibility for federal grants, loans, work-study and other financial aid programs.
How is the Expected Family Contribution Calculated?
Variables that determine a student’s EFC include income and net worth for the student and parents, family size, age of older parent, state and federal taxes and number of family members attending college. As a result, the EFC might change from year to year when the FAFSA is refiled.
Understanding Financial Need vs. College Costs
Each college or university listed on a student’s FAFSA application that accepts that student will determine financial need and present the applicant with an award letter describing the aid offered. “Financial Need” is determined by calculating the Cost of Attendance (COA) minus the EFC determined through the FAFSA.
The EFC will remain the same in a given year (unless an unusual family situation arises) regardless of which college or university the student attends. The amount of aid received cannot exceed the total cost of attendance at a college or university.
Each award letter will include federal, state and college-specific financial aid programs. It is likely that a student’s award letter will include one or more types of loans. These letters often don’t cleanly show which funds offered are scholarship or grant aid (free money) and which are loans (money which must be repaid). To get some tips on understanding award letters, check out our video series here and here.
After years of hard work and months of waiting, students are starting to receive acceptance letters from colleges. Those students accepted into more than one college might face some difficult decisions to make when weighing the pros and cons of one school against another.
“College fit” means finding the school that best meets at student’s needs for the future, but there is no such thing as a “perfect school.” Students shouldn’t stress themselves out thinking that if they pick the wrong school, their life will be ruined. After all, college is what you make of it. But with a little research and effort, students and families can feel more secure about the school they pick. Here are some tips :
Compare financial aid awards
While cost shouldn’t be the only thing considered when deciding between schools, the financial aid offered can go a long way to giving one school an edge over another. The financial aid award letter often comes after the acceptance letter, and has many things to consider when reviewing. Check out our videos on comparing financial aid award letters for more tips (here and here).
Dig deeper with schools
Students already researched schools before applying, but now is a chance to get more detailed information to get a more complete picture of what a school offers, not only in education, but day-to-day life. Such questions can include:
- What is the graduation rate? How many students return after their freshman year?
- Are there work or volunteer opportunities that reflect a student’s major or interests?
- What do students do for fun?
- What student support services does the school offer?
Students can talk to college admissions counselors, current students, recent grads or even the college’s official website to research these and other subjects. It’s important to use only trustworthy sources of information and to recognize the difference between fact and opinion. A college’s official website and its admission officers are often the best sources of factual information about that college.
Visit — or revisit — the campuses
Now that a student has been accepted to a school, a college visit becomes even more important. Even if a family has taken a campus visit previously, going back with a more focused approach will help students see if they truly see themselves as a student at that school. Can’t visit a campus? Call or email the admission office with questions, reach out to professors in your areas of interest or ask to connect current students and recent graduates. High school counselors and teachers may also be a good source to recent grads or current students.
Think about it
Research and asking questions can provide the information that students need to make a decision, but asking and answering the important questions can only be done by a student with their family. How did the student feel during their campus visit? Did the school offer both the academic and social aspects that will lead to success? Will they be happy there? These basic questions might lead to some further reflection about each school.
Make your decision
The good news is that schools don’t need to hear back immediately. Many colleges don’t expect a final decision until May 1, so students and families have some time to make up their mind. Lay out the pros and cons and find the school that fits best with financial, academic and career goals. Remember, though, that colleges are serious about reply deadlines. Not sending a deposit by the deadline can lose a student’s place in the incoming class.
Video: Identify, Separate Loans From Grants on Award Letters to Better Understand Out-Of-Pocket Costs
Getting accepted into college is an exciting moment for students and families who are ready to embark on the next part of their educational journey, but can often be offset by concerns about just how much school will cost both now and after graduation.
Financial aid award letters help students and families get a better understanding of what to expect both in terms of money being provided by the school and state, through scholarships and grants, and costs of attendance (COA) at the school.
In part two of our “Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter” video series, we discuss how to best identify repayable financial aid options and separate them from scholarships and grants to get a better picture of the actual financial responsibility that will be required to attend a school.
More often than not, there is a gap between the “free” money being offered to a student and the COA, leaving families to determine the best way to meet the financial requirements.
On many letters, both federal and private loans are included as possible options to bridge that gap. However, as there is currently no standard format for schools to consistently show financial aid options, loan amounts are often included in the same area as scholarships or grants. At a quick glance, families might not realize that loans, which must be repaid after graduation, are being included with the “free” money of grants and scholarships.
For more tips, advice and information for preparing for college, check out Iowa College Aid’s “Your Course to College,” a free downloadable guide for students, families and schools available at https://www.iowacollegeaid.gov/YourCourse
While the national conversation around the importance of continuing education past high school gains much attention, so to does the issues surrounding paying for it. Regardless of politics, the fact remains that paying for college stands as one of the biggest challenges for students and their families.
Getting a head-start on putting together a financial plan is always a good idea for any prospective student. Here are some tips for families to consider now to ensure that they limit the amount of student loan debt accrued while still in school:
Borrow only the amount you need
Many borrowers make the mistake of taking out more loans than necessary. To avoid doing this, create a budget to determine how much loan money will be needed and avoid using loan money to pay for unnecessary expenses, such as trips to the movie theater or expensive dinners.
Consider a part-time job
If a student’s academic schedule allows, they should consider finding a part-time job on campus to help supplement the cost of unexpected expenses. Be sure to check with the financial aid office to see if students qualify for work study, which gives the opportunity to work on campus.
Compare award letters
Once a student receives their financial aid award letter, compare loan offers by reading the fine print. If federal loans are not enough to cover the cost of education and a student is considering private loan offers, be sure to shop around for the best interest rates and repayment options.
Take college credit while in high school
Taking AP, dual credit or college credit courses while in high school can give students a head start on achieving your intended major. Find out the general education requirements at the college a student plans to attend and take courses that will fulfill those requirements. Doing this can help students graduate from college early, which means borrowing less in student loans.
Consider paying loan interest while still in school
Students who start making interest payments on their student loans while still in college will reduce the total amount they have to repay after graduation. Interest payments are usually manageable. By paying off interest as they go, students can keep outstanding interest from capitalizing on any balances. Allowing interest to capitalize increases loan balances essentially requiring students to pay interest on the interest that has been accrued!
Apply for scholarships
Scholarships can pay for portions or all of a student’s education during an academic year. But students can’t earn scholarships if they don’t apply! Find scholarships specific to a school or department by talking to a representative from the school’s financial aid office or department chair. In addition, the following sites are just a few places to check for scholarships:
- Fast Web – www.FastWeb.com
- Big Future by the College Board – https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org
- Sallie Mae Scholarship Search – www.salliemae.com/scholarships
- Scholarship America – https://scholarshipamerica.org/
Choose a school that fits into the family budget
Review the financial aid packages from the colleges where students applied and consider how much needs to be borrowed in order to attend each. Keep the goal in mind and select a college where loan debt can be kept at a reasonable level against future income potential.
Get more tips in Iowa College Aid’s “Path to College.”
They’ve waited. They’ve watched the mail for weeks. Finally, the letter arrived: Students are getting notice that they’ve been accepted to the school of their dreams! But after the moment of excitement and congratulations wears off , the realization sets in: it’s going to cost money to go to school.
Even if a family has prepared for years, saving money, investing in 529 plans and being on top of completing their student’s FAFSA, now is a crucial time to pay attention to information from schools and have a clear understanding of the financial aid award letter.
Financial aid award letters are sent to students in the weeks after receiving their acceptance letter to a school and reflects the cost of attendance as well as the financial options available to families to help pay for their student’s education. As the letters state, a student’s place in the schools incoming class cannot be reserved until a deposit is received based on the financial award letter. But families should take the time to understand their award letter before submitting any form of deposit, as these deposits are not refundable if a student decides not to attend a particular school.
Currently, there is no standard format for schools to report the financial aid being offered to a student. So families should use these tips to better understand what is being offered and make a smart comparison between what different schools will cost. The school with the lowest tuition fees might not always be the best financial choice thanks to financial aid awards. Knowing how to read the financial aid award letter can make all the difference.
- Find “free money”
Many schools offer students institutional scholarships or grants. These types of funding can be seen as “free money” because students and families don’t have to repay this money after graduation. Make sure to look for words such as “scholarship” or “grant” in the name of the financial award. These awards are often given to students based on the information in the Student Aid Report created when completing the FAFSA, based on income or family responsibility. Families may miss these awards because they do not technically apply for them separately.
- Consider loans and work study options separately
To help show families how they can meet the cost of attendance at their school, award letters will also include options that require repayable loans or other options that require further action by the student, such as work study programs. Since there is no standard format for separating these options from other “free money,” families need to recognize that any loans taken out, be they private or federal Stafford loans, will require repayment by either the student or parent (depending on the loan) after graduation. This is not funds being offered by the school, but money that will require repayment.
- Know the difference between “direct” and “indirect” costs.
Attending college features a variety of costs, but not all of them will necessarily be covered the financial aid offered in the award letter. The “cost of attendance” on a financial aid award letter applies to direct school costs, such as tuition, room and board. Indirect costs, such as books for classes or travel to and from school are not considered in an award letter. These costs are those that the student and family will have to bear personally.
- Determine if awards are for one year or more.
Many families fall into the trap of thinking that the financial award letter reflects the costs and awards for all four years of school when, in reality, the letter reflects the cost for one year of school. While many of the loans listed on an award letter will be available to students each year, many of the grants or scholarships listed may require a new application each year or, in some cases, are only available for one year. Determining which of these awards are renewable, or the length of the award, can help families avoid an unpleasant surprise.
- Make sure the award letter is final.
In some cases, an award letter might not reflect the final amount of aid being offered to a student. If any section of the letter uses words such as “estimated,” “tentative” or “pending,” the school may not have all the information from a student’s FAFSA or other document needed to make a final determination of aid. Once this information is provided, it may have an impact on the amount of aid that the student is finally offered.
Understanding the financial award letter that students receive can lead to some difficult decisions about where a student should go to school. By making the best effort to compare award letters from all schools that have accepted a student, families can make an informed choice of which school fits best with a student’s goals while creating a financial plan that will avoid any bad surprises or unexpected debt down the road.
Financial Aid Awareness Month is dedicated to helping families and students of all ages better understand the options available to them as they look to fund their educational goals and dreams. Iowa College Aid has dedicated a page to discussing some of the common issues facing those looking for financial aid.
Our staff of financial aid experts have also helped out this month, with advice on how to overcome financial aid issues (see last week’s post). This week they address two of the common myths that students have about applying for grants and scholarships and how to debunk them.
Myth #1: We make too much/my parents make too much – I won’t get anything
Family income is definitely a factor when it comes to handing out financial aid. The best kind of financial aid is always the “free” kind – the scholarships and grants that are given freely with no expectation of being paid back later. And often it’s this “free” money that has a “financial need” component to it. Many scholarship and grant providers want to give their awards to students who show some kind of financial need, and when a student’s/family’s income is high, usually the financial need is low.
Not all scholarships and grants are need-based, however. If your student is motivated, they can seek out scholarship and grant opportunities that are based on skills, abilities and interests, grades, musical, athletic or dramatic talent, essay-writing, or a number of other merit-based achievements. The key is looking for them. You know the saying, “you can’t win if you don’t play”? That same philosophy applies to scholarship competitions. Investing some time online searching for “scholarships for high school juniors” or “scholarships for journalism majors” or, if writing essays isn’t a strength for your student, “no essay scholarships” might provide some avenues of funding.
Myth #2: My parents aren’t helping me pay for college so I can’t get financial aid.
Students who are financially independent from their parents can often access additional student loan funds, but a parent’s unwillingness to pay for college doesn’t make you financially independent from them.
The primary circumstances that cause a student to be financially independent are:
- Orphan/ward of court/foster care/emancipated minor/legal guardianship/homeless status
- Veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States
- Graduate or professional student
- Student’s marriage
- Student provides support to dependents
Detailed information about these circumstances can be found on the federal Department of Education website https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out/dependency
If a student has no contact with their parents, or if the student doesn’t reside with their parents because of an abusive or neglectful situation, the student can approach the financial aid office at their college for special instructions on how to complete the parent section of the FAFSA or to determine if there’s a need for a dependency override.