So, you’ve applied for college and been accepted? Or maybe you’ve made the decision to apply, but you aren’t sure as to first steps? Either way, unless you have an athletic or academic scholarship that was predetermined prior to your admission or as part of your admission package, your parents are helping you to pay, or you are independently wealthy, you are likely wondering how you are going to pay for your tuition and other college related expenses. I hope to help demystify the process for you in this article. Most of these tips apply regardless as to whether you are applying for an undergraduate or graduate program, but I have made note of those that are degree specific.
1. Fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The application is available online, HERE. Regardless as to whether you plan to take out student loans, I highly encourage you to still complete the FAFSA. The FAFSA not only allows students who are eligible to receive federal loan money, but also is required to apply for Federal Work Study positions. Federal loan money as well as Work Study positions are available for both undergraduate and graduate students, but you must submit a FAFSA for the academic year in which you plan to attend and you must be at least half-time status (i.e., 9 hours for undergraduate students and 6 hours for graduate students). An academic year runs from fall to summer and you will need to file a FAFSA for every academic year you plan on attending a degree program in college. For example, if you have applied for a program that has a fall 2021 start date, you will want to be sure to fill out the FAFSA for the 2021-2022 academic year and every subsequent academic year you plan on being enrolled in a degree program. I say degree program, because you can only receive federal aid through the FAFSA for degree programs, not certificate programs. That said, if you are in a degree program and pursuing a certificate program concurrently at the same institution, you should be able to utilize the federal aid you are receiving for your degree program toward your certificate program as well. Every university has a Financial Aid Office, so it is important that you reach out to the Financial Aid Office to inquire about specific questions related to your program and the FAFSA. (Note that some universities request prospective students reach out to the Admission’s Office for Financial Aid information, while current students can reach out to the Financial Aid Office – check with your individual school/program.)
If you are applying to an undergraduate program: you may also be eligible for Federal or State Grant funding that is determinable through completing the FAFSA. (Graduate and professional degree students are, unfortunately, not eligible for grant funding.) Grants awarded are determined through need as well as meeting eligibility requirements, including enrollment status. I mentioned half-time status above, but full-time status is 12 hours for undergraduate students and 9 hours for graduate students. The FAFSA website is a good place to start in answering any questions you may have, including those related to grant eligibility. Also, be sure to work with your Financial Aid Office to determine exactly how much aid you will be awarded.
If you are considered a dependent: you will need your parents financial information and tax returns to be able to fill out the FAFSA. Check your dependency status HERE.
Even if you do not plan to use any of the financial opportunities available to you through the FAFSA, I still HIGHLY ENCOURAGE you to apply. Many scholarships available to you through your college/university depend on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) which is determined through the information you provide on your FAFSA. For more information on EFC, click HERE.
2. Apply for University/College Scholarships. Nearly all universities have funding opportunities available to students, but most students don’t realize how limited/competitive these are. Also, scholarship deadlines are often well in-advance to the semester starting that you plan to enroll and most are determined prior to the fall semester. Though academic programs are becoming more and more flexible regarding when students start – many allow fall, spring, and summer starts – scholarships are generally determined for the academic year, meaning most have spring deadlines and are dispersed for the next academic year, starting in fall. For example, if you want to apply for a scholarship for fall 2021, you will need to submit a separate application for the scholarship you are interested in the spring prior. My particular college, for example, has scholarships open in December and close in January of the following year and the scholarships granted are for the fall start of that year, starting in August. That is why I would recommend if you are looking for the best funding opportunities, to apply for school in the fall, regardless as to whether your particular college allows for spring or summer starts. Most funds are dispersed for fall starts.
Check ALL university and college scholarships available. Most universities – especially larger ones – have multiple funding sources available. First start with your Financial Aid Office. They will have information regarding university specific funding for all students. Then look to your individual college for additional funding. For example, if you are attending the Ohio State University’s Max M. Fisher College of Business, check with the Financial Aid Office regarding university scholarships available (example HERE), but then check with the College of Business for college specific scholarships (example HERE). (Note that I am not affiliated with the Ohio State University – I only use them to illustrate an example – but in looking at their Financial Aid pages, it looks like prospective students go to the Admissions page for scholarship information, while currently enrolled students go to the Financial Aid Office.)
If you are applying to a graduate program: many colleges and universities have a Graduate School that graduate programs are housed under. (Professional programs, such as the College of Business’ MBA, for example, are likely housed under the individual college, not the Graduate School – check with your individual school on details.) If your graduate program is housed under a Graduate School, you may be eligible for additional funding opportunities through them, such as Fellowships and/or Graduate/Research/Teaching Assistantships (example HERE). Assistantships are unique opportunities for graduate students to get college paid for while working for the university and usually also earning a stipend. Generally, you need to be full-time (i.e., 9 hours and above) and will only grant tuition remission for the fall and spring semesters – check with your individual program for more information. You may have to do some research regarding your eligibility and deadlines vary.
3. Income Share Agreements (ISA) and Tuition Deferral. Some universities now will allow you to defer your tuition until you are able to find a job that makes a specific annual income. This is a great alternative to taking out loans, if it is available at your particular university/college. You can read more about these programs HERE. This CNBC article published in 2018 is a little outdated, but ISA’s have just recently become available and are not federally regulated, but a financial agreement with the student and the institution he/she is attending. Basically, rather than the government or a private financial institution acting as your lender, the university is your lender. I would argue ISA and tuition deferral is a better alternative than private student loans but not necessarily a better alternative to federal student loans. That said, I am not well versed on this option, but if you are thinking of attending or are currently attending a university that offers this option, do check with your Financial Aid Office about the stipulations of the repayment plan agreement.
4. Employer-Based Scholarships/Funding. Depending on where you work, you may have employer-based scholarship and/or funding opportunities available to you. If you work for a university/college, you will likely have tuition remission available to you and/or your family, for example. But employer-based scholarships and funding opportunities are not only available to those of us who work at universities. Many employers offer educational benefits, so check with your Human Resources department to see if they offer any educational benefits and what you will need in order to apply.
5. National Service Education Benefits. If you are in the military or are a vet, you may have educational benefits available to you. The same applies for a number of national service opportunities, including the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. Check on your specific national service webpage/portal for more information – Peace Corps HERE and Americorps HERE. If you are active military or a vet, and you are not sure where to start, check your university’s Veterans Resource Center (VRC) or local Veterans Affairs (VA) Office – you can start your search HERE.
6. External Funding Opportunities. There are a ton of websites where you can search for external funding opportunities, but few students know that their university/college also generally has a list of external funding opportunities available. To go back to the Ohio State University, for example, both their Financial Aid and their Graduate School pages list external funding sources available.
My number one personal suggestion for external funding searches is: FastWeb.com. I have been a member since the early 2000’s when I was an undergraduate student. It’s a free service, so there is no charge to sign-up and they will notify you of potential scholarship opportunities that fit your specified criteria. They also have a sister site for military students, Military.com, and are affiliated with another free financial aid service, FinAid.org. (Note that I am not an affiliate, but recommend them based on my personal experience.)
7. Private Student Loans. I want to be very clear in that I do NOT recommend taking out private student loans. I have had really negative personal experiences with private student loans and would encourage you to only utilize private loans as an option if you have exhausted every other option available to you and you are not able/willing to wait for alternative funding opportunities. That said, if you are interested in private student loans, you will want to check to be sure you are getting the best interest rates available through your lender and check to see what their deferment and forbearance policies are. Do your research! Private student loan lenders are NOT interested in your wellbeing and are not as flexible in regard to repayment options as the federal government is in regard to federal student loans. As a for-profit business, they are out to make money. A number of private lenders have recently been scrutinized for their questionable business practices – NAVIENT, for example, which was formerly Sallie Mae, has had a number of lawsuits filed against them, the most recent as of today can be found in this Forbes.com article, HERE.
My final piece of advice is to be smart. Taking out loans may seem like a quick and easy solution, but, according to Forbes.com, our national student loan debt in the United States is $1.56 trillion in 2020 – you can read the article HERE. You can get your education for free, or at the very least vastly discounted, by taking advantage of all the opportunities available to you.
If you would like a step-by-step walkthrough of the financial aid process for a totally random college and program (viz. University of Utah, Eccles School of Business), please check out my (admittedly long) video HERE.
As always, I wish you luck in your academic endeavors and let me know if you have any specific questions/concerns I can help address by visiting my Contact page!
– Your Academic Advisor