|Saturday, May 25, 2013|
Plan Ahead to Get College Financial Aid
Getting financial help to attend college takes ingenuity, inspiration, and sometimes, duct tape.
Ingenuity is required to match your student profile to the many different types of financial assistance offered by colleges, community organizations, lenders, and other sources. Inspiration comes from being committed to obtaining an education or fulfilling a career dream. As for the duct tape, it represents the unexpected sources that may help you stick together a financial aid package.
When to start
The financial aid process is simplified by early decision making. In the junior year of high school, sort through career and college possibilities and narrow your choices.
Visiting campuses between the junior and senior year will help you choose the right college or technical school, while providing information about costs and the availability of financial aid. Remember, aid can vary significantly between public and private institutions. Many parents who recoil at private college tuition later find that a bigger financial aid package can equalize the final cost.
Start to explore financial aid possibilities by registering with free online sites that offer information about scholarships and financial assistance. One source is FastWeb. FastWeb collects a thorough profile and then pulls potential scholarships from a database of thousands. Registered users get e-mail about new scholarship possibilities and reminders of approaching deadlines. Other sites include WiredScholar and FinAid.
The real work begins in the fall of the senior year.
Avoid sites that charge a fee, since they may be more interested in getting your financial support than helping you find it. Be aware, however, that many sites that provide free information also bombard users with offers to get a credit card or obtain a free trial magazine subscription. Just say "no thanks" and remind yourself that learning to resist cheap thrills is part of the educational process.
The senior year
The real work begins in the fall of the senior year of high school when you start completing college applications. The Internet simplifies this process, especially when colleges "share" online applications. The Common Application, for example, is a standardized form accepted at more than 200 independent four-year campuses.
Scholarship deadlines for incoming freshmen start falling in early autumn. Many scholarships require personal essays and letters of recommendation from teachers and community leaders, so begin writing drafts and identifying references in late summer or early fall. You also might want to scout around for a working typewriter, possibly through your local public library. A scanner will allow you to computerize some scholarship applications, but others still require that you use a typewriter to complete an "official" form.
The best scholarship opportunities are probably posted in your guidance counselor's office.
The earliest scholarship deadlines typically involve nationwide competitions. Examining the application form is worthwhile even when it seems like a long shot, since some scholarships funded by national companies have a local connection, such as one scholarship per state, or one per community sponsor.
But the best scholarship opportunities are probably posted in your guidance counselor's office. Visit the guidance office at least once a month. You also can skim the local newspaper for scholarship information. Opportunities abound for students with special interests or talents. For example, an outdoors enthusiast might apply for a scholarship from the local chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, while a student committed to community service can qualify for scholarships from service organizations such as your local Kiwanis chapter.
You can create a college budget by comparing college costs with your savings and your "estimated family contribution" (EFC). The EFC represents what the government or the college thinks your family should contribute to your education. Several sites help students determine the EFC, including FinAid.
Tackling the FAFSA
As soon as possible after Jan. 1, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Colleges and universities set their own deadlines for receiving a completed FAFSA, usually beginning in February or March.
Some awards are deliberately designed to give everyone a chance, regardless of career plans or academic records.
The FAFSA Web site helps you get started with checklists, samples, and application forms. Complete the preapplication work sheet and supporting work sheets before tackling the FAFSA. Required information includes Social Security numbers, household size, and earnings for both parents and yourself. It's best to use a completed tax form for earnings information. Estimates can be used to complete an initial version as long as you correct it later with final information. Remember to have the FAFSA sent to all colleges you are seriously considering.
Once the FAFSA is complete, it can be printed, signed, and mailed, or filed online if you have a Personal Identification Number (PIN). Obtaining a PIN takes two days or longer, so apply in advance if your deadline is approaching. For dependent students, the student and one parent each must have separate PINs. An independent student is a student who is or will be at least 24 years old in the year they are applying for federal aid, married, a graduate or professional student, a veteran, an orphan, a ward of the court, or someone with legal dependents other than a spouse. A dependent student is one who does not meet the definition of an independent student.
Two to four weeks after completing the FAFSA online, you should receive a Student Aid Report that determines your final EFC. If you file by mail, add roughly two weeks to the process. Review the final report carefully and correct errors promptly.
As soon as possible after Jan. 1, complete the FAFSA.
Some colleges combine the FAFSA with other financial aid forms, so verify requirements for additional forms with the financial aid office. Most colleges notify applicants of their status in March or April. The combination of a completed FAFSA and your college admission should trigger a financial aid award letter from the school. Compare the bottom line on competing offers carefully.
If recent events have significantly altered your family's ability to help pay for college--such as a parent's job loss or the illness of a family member--contact the financial aid administrator to request an individual review.
Persistence paysYou must formally accept the college's financial award, which usually is required sometime before June 1. Keep a copy of all information for future reference. If loans are part of your financial aid package, applications should be completed in May or June, if possible. Even students who fail to qualify for government loans often can obtain loans from private sources, including some credit unions
Plan to repeat this financial aid application process every year while you're in school. Throughout the process, continue to apply for scholarships from private sources. Some awards are deliberately designed to give everyone a chance, regardless of career plans or academic records.
That's where duct tape comes in. The "Duck Brand Duct Tape Stuck at Prom Contest" provides scholarships to high-school students who show outstanding creativity in creating prom outfits made entirely from duct tape. It's just one of many awards that focus on individual qualities in selecting scholarship winners, proving that it pays to stick with it when applying for financial aid.
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