10 Things You Need to Know About Paying for College
Make sure you have the financial aid you need and understand the true costs of colleges.
By Jeff Bellinghausen
Paying for college is more than just looking at the cost of tuition for the schools that accept you and applying for a scholarship or two. To make sure you’re able to pay for your college degree, you need a clear understanding of your family’s finances and the possibilities of getting financial aid.
You don’t have to to be an academic genius or star athlete to qualify for a scholarship.
Learning the ins and outs of what’s involved in getting financial aid will help you make smarter decisions about how to create a budget and accept the financial aid packages offered to you for your college degree.
1. Understand Financial Aid
To pay for college, most people will require financial aid. How does the aid process work? You fill out forms detailing your family’s financial information in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. The U.S. government and the schools you’re applying to evaluate your financial need, and then offer you federal loans, college grants, work study options, and/or college scholarships. When you receive the financial aid package from each college or university that accepts you, you compare the money for college and use that to help you determine which school to attend. Once you choose, you decide which offers of financial aid you accept.
2. Choose Financial Aid Options That Work for You
Paying for college does not mean accepting all the financial aid offered to you by a college or university. You choose which federal grants, college scholarships and federal loans you want to accept. Because college grant and scholarship are considered free money, in other words, money you don’t have to pay back, you’ll want to accept those before federal loans, which will need to be paid back over time.
3. Make Sure You Have Enough Student Aid
You can appeal the financial aid package you’re offered and request more aid. Colleges and universities create an award letter based on the information you provide them, but it’s becoming increasingly common for students to request more aid. Common tactics include sending the award letter from another school that has accepted you and requesting that your top choice match the financial aid offered. You can also contact the school directly and explain your financial hardships in more detail to illustrate why paying for college will be a challenge with the amount of aid they’ve provided. While they may not change your financial aid package, it's worth asking if needed.
4. Transferring? Know the Financial Aid Facts First
If you transfer colleges, your financial aid may not transfer with you. Transferring to a new college or university is common among college students. But don’t assume that just because you transfer, your college aid will transfer with you. Contact the financial aid departments of both schools to find out what their policies are about the transferal of college aid.
5. How Financial Need is Determined
Schools determine your financial need based on the cost of attending the school (COA) menus your expected family contribution (EFC). In other words, the amount of college money you need depends on the total cost of attending that school, which includes tuition as well as other costs, and the amount of money your family has on hand to contribute.
6. Need-Blind vs. Need-Aware Admissions
Learn the difference between need-blind (also called full need) versus need-aware (also called need-sensitive) admissions. With need-blind admissions, schools don’t consider your financial situation when deciding whether to accept you. With need-aware policies, schools make most, but not all, admissions decisions without looking at your financial needs.
7. Merit Aid vs. Financial Need
Not all money awarded as financial aid is based on financial need. Students can receive aid based on their merits, in the form of awards, scholarships, tuition waivers and loans.
8. Find Scholarships
You don’t have to to be an academic genius or star athlete to qualify for a scholarship, contrary to popular misconceptions. Scholarships are awarded by private organizations and corporations to a broad variety of students with all sorts of skills and backgrounds. Scholarships are always worth pursuing; you may lose some time in applying for them, but you stand to gain free money to help you pay for college.
9. Compare Student Loan Options
Not all federal and personal loans are created equal. Make sure you compare student loans, as well as read all the fine print on repayment policies and interest rates so you graduate from college with as little debt as possible.
10. Factor in All College Costs
There are more school costs than you might think. When you’re figuring out how to pay for college, don’t forget to factor in everyday costs, like laundry and cell phone charges, as well as school costs (books, supplies, computer, printer) and dorm necessities like bedding, towels, lamps and a fridge.
- Not good with money? Talk to your parents, guidance counselor and the financial aid office of the schools your considering about any questions you don’t understand.
- Find out if the college bookstore stocks used textbooks. Small costs like cheaper textbooks will help you save money throughout the school year.
- Ask the school’s financial aid office about college work-study programs. Working while you’re in school can help offset some of your financial aid and give you a head-start on paying back your loans.