A few years ago, my daughter graduated from high school and entered college with a full-ride academic scholarship in engineering. We were thrilled. But after experiencing the world of college engineering, she changed her mind—and her major.
She also lost her scholarship.
While I don’t recommend that students stick with a course of study they don’t like just to keep their financial aid, I do recommend that students and parents find out as much as they can about financial aid and the conditions that accompany the aid they do receive.
Every family’s financial aid situation is different depending on family assets, student assets, how many family members will be attending college, tax decisions the federal government makes, state funding programs, and specific college funding opportunities. Yes, you’ll need to do some legwork, but I’ll get you started with some ideas and resources.
First, the good news. The U.S. Department of Education reports that while the price of higher education is going up, so is the amount of financial aid you can get.
One necessary and important step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA, as it’s better known. The FAFSA determines your child’s eligibility for student financial aid from federal programs. You can get the FAFSA application from your high school counselor or college financial aid office, or you can file online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. Colleges and universities also use the FAFSA information, though some may require you to fill out additional forms.
You can submit the FAFSA beginning January 1 for the upcoming school year. Fill it out as soon as possible and be sure your information is accurate. If you wait until too late in the year, the money may have already been awarded to other students. Make sure you meet the deadlines because there is absolutely, positively no flexibility.
Financial aid sources are basically scholarships and grants, loans, and work-study opportunities for the student on campus. The financial aid package—a blend of these resources—is determined by the college to which your child applies. It’s important to understand and follow the school’s directions regarding the aid.
Scholarships are based on merit or need. Merit scholarships can be awarded for athletic or academic abilities but also for categories such as club membership, interests, ethnicity, talent (e.g. art, music, or dance), or career plans. Many companies provide scholarships to children of employees as well. Need-based awards are given by colleges and the federal government based on financial information the family provides.
You hear a lot about scholarships: thousands of dollars go unclaimed or a student is paying his or her way through four years of college entirely on scholarships the student found and applied for. Both of these examples misrepresent what happens in most cases. Apply for scholarships, but don’t overestimate the role that scholarships will play in financing a college education. Many of the scholarships are smaller—and it takes a lot of them to add up.
You may also receive offers to find scholarship information for a fee, but you never need to pay for that information or pay to apply for a scholarship.
The Federal Trade Commission says warning signs include:
- having to provide credit card information
- scholarships guaranteed “or your money back”
- a claim that you can’t get the information anywhere else
- that your student is a finalist in a contest he or she never entered
Your high school counselor will have binders full of scholarship information, and a number of websites put thousands of scholarships at your fingertips. One, www.collegenet.com, provides a scholarship search of more than 600,000 awards totaling more than $1.6 billion in aid.
If you will rely on student loans, you’ll have a lot of company. Make sure you and your child understand the loan programs. Federal Stafford loans (to the student) require payment to begin six months after the student leaves school. The parent PLUS loans require payment soon after the funds are delivered. For more information and current rates, check the Department of Education website or www.finaid.org.
Check with your high school counselor or college financial aid office about special programs. In some states, for example, students entering job areas of great need—such as teaching in low-income areas—qualify for financial aid or forgivable loans.
As you search for financial aid, don’t rule anything out. Don’t assume that you are ineligible for aid or that a college will be too expensive. Do the paperwork, apply to the colleges, and see what offers come in. Then make your decisions.