When considering college, one of the first hurdles a prospective student needs to overcome is paying for his or her education. Fortunately, schools with the appropriate credentials and accreditation are able to offer financial aid packages to their students. Depending on the individual, his or her talents, grades, level of financial need (as well as that of his parents) and myriad other factors, a wide range of aid options are available to a student. Some colleges and universities are able to offer direct aid, in the form of grants and scholarships, from their own endowments. Students seeking their undergraduate degrees may also qualify for federal Pell Grants. In addition to such school or government-based options, many private scholarship sources are available to potential college students. With a little research and some effort in the application process, this type of aid can prove to be extremely helpful in defraying education expenses.
Finding Money to Help Pay for College
College is expensive; and many colleges are far more expensive than others. Students and parents may find themselves looking at schools they feel are more “affordable” simply because they don’t realize how much or the types of aid that may be ava
ilable to them. It’s important to do your homework on financial aid options long before you or your student set foot on campus. Taking the time to learn how the financial aid process works and what paperwork (usually in electronic form, these days) needs to filed, could make the difference between attending the college you want as opposed to the school you think you can afford.
Financial aid comes in two essential forms: that based on academic merit and that which is based on financial need. Merit based financial aid looks at a student’s accomplishments, rather than his or her financial need, and are typically referred to simply as scholarships. A student can merit a scholarship by being academically outstanding, an exceptional athlete or talented as an actor, writer, visual artist, debater, dancer or in any number of other pursuits. Often, the amount of merit based aid will be determined by the school itself. Smaller, private colleges without major athletic programs may only offer partial scholarships to athletes, but much more valuable scholarships to academic high achievers. Whereas, larger schools may give “full-rides” to athletes while only offering partial assistance to scholars.
Financial aid that is based on need, however, is available to anyone who can demonstrate such need. The financial thresholds are determined at one level by the federal government, which will ultimately determine whether a student is eligible for the Pell Grants mentioned above, or how much money a student can borrow in order to attend college through one of the federally subsidized programs. The federal government looks at the information a student provides on his or her FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to make need-based determinations, then transmits the information to the school(s) to which the student has applied. Many schools will then make their own determinations based on a student’s FAFSA whether additional need based aid should be given either from the school or from another source such as the state government’s education programs.
For most students who need financial aid, loans are a reality. Students can borrow directly through state or federally-subsidized loan programs, such as the Stafford or National Direct Student Loan products. Parents can also borrow federally-guaranteed funds to help their children attend college. This program is often referred to as PLUS — Parent Loans for Undergraduate Students. In addition to the government subsidized products, many private lenders also offer student loans. Such loans, though, often have higher – sometimes variable – interest rates than their subsidized, fixed rate counterparts. Private lenders may also require cosigners or security interests which can cause a lot of trouble for a lot more people in the instance of a default.
While student and parent loans can seem like easy and free money, it is important to remember that they are loans and must be repaid. Student loans, for the most part, are difficult if not impossible to discharge in any way except by death or total permanent disability, neither of which are particularly attractive options.
Another financial aid option that is included in many students’ financial aid packages is work study funds. Work study funds come in the form of a grant, which is then used to pay a student (usually at a higher-than-minimum wage rate) for work he or she performs for a qualified, typically on-campus, employer. Work study does not have to be repaid, and in many cases may provide an excellent opportunity for a student to gain experience in a field he or she may not otherwise have been able to, such as a in a teaching or research assistant position.