The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a key part of college financial aid. While many families might think that the FAFSA is only for lower-income households, the truth is that the application helps make federal, state and school funds available for all students, regardless of their family’s income.
Here are some reasons to complete the FAFSA:
- To qualify for a variety scholarships and grants. Many federal and state scholarships (including those in Iowa) require a completed FAFSA for consideration, even when those scholarships and grants do not consider family income. FAFSA information can also impact the financial aid offered by schools in terms of grants or other awards.
- Some financial aid opportunities are available on a limited basis. Completing the FAFSA as soon as possible gives students the best chance for receiving those aid amounts.
- Completing the FAFSA earlier gives students the time to focus on other parts of college preparation, such as completing college applications, focusing on coursework and applying for scholarships.
- When students have completed their FAFSA, schools can more easily provide estimated financial aid offers sooner. This makes comparing colleges much easier, as students will have a better idea of what their education will actually cost them at each school to which they are accepted.
Sure, college can seem daunting. The idea of four more years of school (more for a graduate degree), being away from family and dealing with the cost of your education for years after graduation. It’s enough to make you ask why you should even bother with college if you can get a job right after high school.
Iowa College Aid’s “Your Course to College” guide offers a great deal of information and tips for students preparing, applying and succeeding in college. But perhaps the best tip of all (which is why it’s right up front in the guide), is showing why college is important in the first place.
A strong career and a bright future can be possible for all Iowans. When college is added to the mix, studies have shown that things can get stronger and brighter for those with a degree. Here are four (and maybe even a few more) reasons why a college education can make a difference in your life:
College graduates simply earn more. Weekly earnings for workers with bachelor’s degrees are almost twice the earnings of workers with only high school diplomas. Over a lifetime, this can translate to a difference of more than a million dollars, and the gap is getting wider.
You’re more likely to land a job if you go to college. The unemployment rate for college graduates is about half the unemployment rate for high school graduates. The number of jobs for college graduates is growing, while the number of jobs for high school graduates is falling. More than 95% of the jobs created from 2010 to 2016 required at least some college education.
Maybe you’ll never need to solve a differential equation or quote Shakespeare, but higher education will still serve you well. College teaches critical thinking, communications and problem-solving skills. A recent survey found that employers consider these skills more important than a potential hire’s subject of study.
Quality of life
In terms of finances, health and happiness, college graduates do better. The poverty rate for people with only a high school degree is nearly three times the poverty rate for people with bachelor’s degrees. College graduates are less likely to smoke, be obese or be incarcerated. College graduates are also significantly more likely to be happy with their standard of living.
Those are the biggies. But there’s so much more that college offers students that make for a fuller and more fulfilling career and life:
- Meet people from different backgrounds and cultures
- Discover your passion
- Try new things
- Learn new skills
- Build your confidence
- Get involved in clubs and activities
- Make your own decisions
- Learn more about yourself
- Challenge yourself and prove you can succeed
- Start a tradition
- Make your family proud
Keep these things in mind when you find yourself struggling with the more frustrating parts of preparing for college and remember: the more you put into your education, the greater the reward. You can get there, you can afford it and you can succeed.
For families and high school students, having a good gameplan for getting to, paying for and succeeding in college is valuable. That’s why we’re here to help.
Iowa College Aid’s annual “Your Course to College” guide will ship to schools and families later this month, but we’re taking the opportunity to preview some highlights and some of our favorite tips found in the guide. This week, tips to finding the best sources of funding for your college education. To find more previews and sign up to receive your copy of “Your Course to College” in print or download, visit our “Your Course to College” page at IowaCollegeAid.gov.
There are many ways to pay for a college education, and the financial aid process is not as complicated as most people think. Most students attending Iowa colleges and universities receive some form of financial assistance.
After you submit your college applications, complete these four steps:
1. Submit the FAFSA
To qualify for most financial aid, you must complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The fastest and most accurate way to apply is online at fafsa.gov. The FAFSA will gather information about your finances, your family’s finances and your college plans. You can complete the FAFSA for 2018-19 beginning October 1, 2017, using 2016 tax information.
2. Submit the Iowa Financial Aid Application
The Iowa Financial Aid Application allows you to apply for multiple state-administered aid programs with one application. Click the Iowa Financial Aid Application button at IowaCollegeAid.gov.
3. Decide on a College and Accept Aid
All colleges that you list on your FAFSA will send you a financial aid award letter if you are offered admission. Award letters will describe the financial aid package each college can offer. When comparing aid packages, consider how much assistance is from scholarships and grants (which do not have to be repaid) and how much is from loans (which must be repaid).
To accept the financial aid package offered by a college or university, follow all instructions. This might involve entering aid amounts you intend to accept in an online form or signing and returning a paper award letter by a specified deadline. Talk to the financial aid office at the college or university if an unusual circumstance delays your response.
To officially accept a college admissions offer and reserve your place, submit your deposit by the college’s reply date. May 1 is the date for most colleges.
4. Apply for Scholarships
Continue seeking and applying for outside scholarships. Think of it as a part-time job. If you spend 20 hours on scholarship applications and receive one worth $1,000, you just made $50 an hour for your efforts!
Reputable education organizations will NOT charge for scholarship searches.
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.
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.”