By G. Mark Kantrowitz, Publisher of FinAid.org
he sooner you start searching for money for college, the better off you’ll be. Many awards have early deadlines, so don’t procrastinate.
There are three main sources of financial aid for college, namely the government, the colleges themselves, and the private sector.
To apply for federal and state aid, you need to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can obtain a copy from your guidance counselor, college financial aid personnel, or local library. You can also fill it out on the web at www.fafsa.ed.gov. For help completing the FAFSA form, call 1-800-4-FED-AID. The FAFSA form should be submitted as soon as possible after January 1st.
A few weeks after you submit the FAFSA, you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR), which summarizes the information you submitted. The SAR will also contain your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is the amount of money the government believes your family will be able to contribute to your education.
If you feel that your EFC figure does not reflect your ability to pay, or there are unusual financial circumstances, talk to the financial aid administrator (FAA) at the college you plan to attend. Ask him or her for a “Professional Judgment” (PJ) review, in which the FAA can override certain aspects of the need analysis formula if circumstances merit. Mention anything and everything that might be unusual about your circumstances, and bring along documentation (proof) of those circumstances. Examples of unusual circumstances include (but are not limited to): student being the primary wage-earner for the family, recent job loss or anticipated job loss during the upcoming year, high medical/dental expenses, death or disability of a wage-earner, estranged family relationships, private elementary and/or secondary school tuition expenses, casualty losses (fire, theft), unusual changes in income and assets, and so on.
You can list up to six colleges on the FAFSA form to receive a copy of your financial aid application information. More can be added later, when you get your SAR. Some colleges may have their own forms or require the Financial Aid PROFILE form.
For private sector scholarships, the best source is FastWeb.com. FastWeb is the largest and most popular free scholarship search site. FastWeb will also automatically send you email about new awards that match your profile. Private scholarships account for only about seven percent of all student aid, so the process is somewhat competitive.
Never pay money to get information about scholarships or to apply for scholarships. If you have to pay money to get money, it’s probably a scam.
The best scholarship programs for minority students include:
Another good resource of general information about student financial aid is FinAid.org. FinAid.org has a particularly detailed section devoted to financial aid for Native American students
Other major types of financial aid include education loans and military aid. Education loans include the Perkins, Stafford and PLUS loans programs. Although loans aren’t as good as grants and scholarships, the interest rate on these federally-guaranteed loan programs is among the lowest available. Military aid includes US Armed Forces recruiting programs such as ROTC as well as student aid for veterans and their dependents. FinAid provides good general information about education loans and military aid.