Money Management

FAFSA: The Most Important Tool for Financial Aid

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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.

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Here are some reasons to complete the FAFSA:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
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Your Course to College: Finding Funds for School

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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.

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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.

Use Summer to Your Advantage to Save on College Costs

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The snow coats are finally put away in place of the short-sleeve shirts. Spring is here, with summer right behind. For high school seniors, the end of years of hard work are within your grasp with the goal of a college education just beyond it. But rather than coasting to the finish line, students looking to save money and hit the ground running once they get to college will find the next few months important.

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“Summer melt” is the term used in higher education to describe students that intend to go to college after high school graduation, but never make it to college in the fall. Their college plans have dripped away like an ice cream cone in the July heat. Here are some tips to stay on track and keep those college plans firm this summer, and even saving a few dollars once you get there:

  1. Don’t fall victim to “senioritis.” The end of high school is certainly in reach, but that doesn’t mean students should take their foot off the pedal when it comes to school. Completing AP or dual enrollment courses in high school can reduce the number of credits that need to be taken in college. Think of it as getting free classes that would otherwise be part of tuition costs.
  2. Plan ahead to avoid changing majors. It’s not out of the ordinary for students to get to college not knowing exactly what they want to do. But changing majors, even once, can add a year or more to a student’s time in college. Use this summer to explore areas of career interest as a volunteer or intern to get a taste of what the day-to-day life in a particular job will be like. It might lead to reconsidering a college major before too much time and money is committed.
  3. Consider summer courses. Just like taking the AP, any courses that can be taken before college will help later. General education, or underclass, units can be taken at local community colleges, often with smaller class sizes and for less money than when a student gets to a college or university. Math is math, no matter where you take it. Why not get a head start now?
  4. Take a part-time job. Working during college can help reduce the amount of money that needs to be borrowed, in addition to providing valuable job experience. Use the summer to help build a nest egg for college expenses.
  5. Research textbook and supply rentals. Course books can be one of the biggest expenses for students once they get to college. While many colleges allow students to rent textbooks instead of buying them, online sites such as chegg.com, eFollett.com, textbooks.com and others can provide other options and the opportunity to compare prices. Getting to know the options ahead of time in school can lead to saving hundreds of dollars come fall.

Finding Free Money for College: A High-Paying Part-Time Job

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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.

Private Scholarships

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

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.

 

Video: Identify, Separate Loans From Grants on Award Letters to Better Understand Out-Of-Pocket Costs

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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.

Award Letters Part 2

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

A Good Plan for College Helps Keep Loan Debt Low

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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:

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.”

Understand The True Cost of College Attendance by Decoding Award Letters

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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.

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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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.