For many students, figuring out how to pay for college is the most complicated part of the process. If you’ve just finished figuring out all of your applications and getting accepted, you may not feel up for this next, greater challenge.
Don’t let all the forms and acronyms scare you off. Financial aid will seem complicated when you’re looking at the entire process at once. It is especially intimidating because you are excited about getting accepted to college and need to figure this out to make your dream happen.
Remember that you figured out the application process and everything else to get you this far. The financial aid process is not as scary as it seems. The key is to break the process down step-by-step.
There are four main steps to applying for financial aid, and you’ll want to take each of these one at a time. Once you’ve checked those off, there is a bonus fifth step of seeking out non-need based student loan options.
Step One: Look Into The Financial Aid Eligibility Requirements
Let’s go ahead and tackle this one right now. These are the most basic eligibility requirements to see if you qualify for financial aid.
Be accepted or enrolled as a student at an eligible program where you will be receiving your degree.
Have your high school diploma or your GED.
You need to be a citizen of the United States or an eligible noncitizen with a social security number.
Are you unsure if you’re an eligible noncitizen? The status of our visa or immigration paperwork will be a factor in this. You’ll need to do some research by contacting immigration or discussing the issue with the financial aid office at the school you’re going to.
Do you still have more questions about your basic eligibility? Talking to the financial aid office at the school you’re applying to is the best way to get direct answers about your specific situation.
Keep in mind the above requirements are only the most basic, which apply to every type of financial aid you’ll be looking into. There are often additional requirements. Sometimes you’ll need to be enrolled at school for a certain number of credits per semester or there may be need-based requirements based on income.
Step Two: FAFSA Submissions
FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
This is your application for financial aid. It requires a lot of information, so you’ll want to set aside a full afternoon for filling this out thoroughly. You’ll want to be patient and make sure you get all the details right.
The application becomes available for students on October first every year. It is best to submit your application as soon as possible after that.
The FAFSA will require information about your finances and your family situation. If you live with your parents or they will be helping you pay for school, you should probably ask them when they have a free afternoon so they can be nearby to give you information for your application.
What happens after you submit your application? For one thing, you will become eligible to receive financial aid. For another thing, you will receive a Student Aid Report. This report will include a very important piece of information for many people, which is your EFC. EFC stands for Expected Family Contribution. What this means is that based on the information in your application, they have decided on an amount of money they expect your family to be able to contribute to your school expenses.
Step Three: Consistently Perform Well At School
What does this have to do with financial aid? A lot, actually.
The government grants financial aid so that students can go to school and earn a degree. To this end, they want to assure they are granting financial aid to students maintaining steady progress toward graduation.
Every school’s financial aid office will have unique policies on what this looks like. The policy is known as SAP, which stands for Satisfactory Academic Progress.
The SAP requirements for keeping financial aid are generally things like earning a minimum GPA, completing the right courses to receive your degree within a specific time fame, or successfully achieving a certain number or percentage of attempted credits.
Step Four: Get Clear On Your Financial Need Eligibility
When you filled out your FAFSA, you discovered your EFC (expected family contribution) and the types of grants, loans, and other financial options you have for need-based financial aid.
The government decided your need-based amount of financial aid by looking at the cost of attending your school and subtracting the EFC amount. This new total is the amount you are eligible to apply to receive for financial aid.
Keep in mind that when the government decides on your EFC amount, they look at both your family’s total income and other factors like the amount your school costs and whether you have siblings also attending college. Generally speaking, it is worth it for most families to at least submit a FAFSA so they can become clear on their eligibility for financial aid.
If you qualify for financial aid, then the program likely suggests that you use Federal Pell Grants, Federal work-study programs, or subsidized direct loans as ways to cover the costs of attending college.
Bonus: Look Into Options for Non-Need Based Financial Aid
There is need-based Federal financial aid and then there is non-need-based financial aid.
With this option, you can look into federal student loans to help cover your costs of school. These non-need-based federal student loans have higher interest rates than the subsidized direct loans that are need-based, but are still usually at a much lower interest rate than private student loan options. They also come with more favorable repayment plans than private loans.
That being said, if you still have more costs to cover, you may also need to look into private student loan options as well as merit-based scholarships. Scholarships may be available for academic or athletic achievements. It is important to note that should you obtain merit-based scholarships, this may affect the amount of funding you’ll be eligible for with financial aid. You will need to discuss your merit-based scholarships with your financial aid department.
Financial Aid 101: Stay Organized and Take It One Step At A Time
Staying organized is one of the most important things to keep in mind during your financial aid process. Your first big step after checking the eligibility requirements was to apply for your FAFSA. Getting that done will feel like a huge relief, but it is still only the beginning.
If you need to apply for grants, loans, and merit-based scholarships, it will be essential that you keep everything organized. You don’t want anything to fall into chaos. As you secure more funding sources, you may need to submit that information to the financial aid office, so keeping your paperwork together will make that much simpler for yourself. Keep a calendar with all deadlines clearly marked on it so nothing falls through the cracks.
Remember that you have managed to successfully apply for college and gain acceptance. You can organize and manage the financial aid process just as well!
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