Financial Aid: Tips for Paying for College

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.

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

Preparing for College in the 2020-2021 Academic Year

So you want to go to college starting fall 2020? That’s great news – congratulations! You have picked a perfect time to make this very important decision, which is the first step. That said, know that, academically speaking, you’re a little late to the game. You may find that most scholarships have been dispersed. If you are applying to graduate programs, most Graduate Assistantships (GAs), Teaching Assistantships (TAs) and Research Assistantships (RAs) have been determined. There are also a number of programs that are no longer accepting applications, as the deadlines have passed. If you decided on attending an in-person or hybrid (i.e., partly in-person, partly online) program, you may find that there are more online components than you expect this fall, due to COVID-19 – we’re still not sure.

But fret not! I am here to help break down next steps for you:

(1) Apply to the college/university/program

If you haven’t completed this first step, it is essential that you do so ASAP. Most colleges/universities have set deadlines. Depending on the program and the college/university, you may find them to be flexible. This is especially true now, as most administrators are anticipating lower enrollment numbers for this academic year. There are also usually a number of necessary components to the application, such as the required informational forms, personal statement, writing sample(s), resume, and letters of recommendation. These all take time to complete, so it is important to use this time in self-isolation to focus on writing and completing the application.

Helpful Tip #1: If the application deadline has already passed, be sure to contact the college/university/department you are wanting to apply to in order to see if they are still accepting applications. This year especially, I suspect that application deadlines are going to be flexible.

Helpful Tip #2: Be sure to line up your recommenders in advance! During these uncertain times especially, be sure to give your recommenders plenty of time to submit their letters of recommendation. Also, make sure that you ask appropriate people to be your recommenders – this includes faculty, supervisors, and other professional references. Do NOT ask family, friends, counselors, or pastoral references (unless you are applying for a degree that is in relation to seminary/theology and you have volunteer experience, or something of that nature, at your church).

(2) Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

It is not required that you accept any loan money that is offered, but I think it is extremely important to at least have your FAFSA on file for the academic years that you plan on being enrolled, regardless as to whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student. Remember, an academic year is from fall to summer, so the 2019-2020 academic year started in fall 2019 and will end after the summer 2020 term. Yes, it is a tedious process, but well worth it, as you will not be considered for grant money (if you are an undergraduate student – graduate students are not eligible), cannot apply for Federal Work Study positions, some scholarships, etc. without it.

Helpful Tip #3: If you are also under 24 years of age, you may also need to have your parents’ financial information to submit the FAFSA. (Some exceptions to this include being married, orphaned, a vet, having children, or if you are emancipated from your parents.)

Helpful Tip #4: Make sure to have all of your (and your parents’) financial and personal information ready – this includes items such as Social Security numbers, birthdays, W-2 information, and bank account information.

(3) Check for available scholarships

Unless you (or your parents) are independently wealthy or you have a full-ride from athletics, academics, etc., you are likely in need of some college funds. Keep in mind, most scholarship applications open and close well in advance of the application deadline. Scholarship applications are usually also separate from the application. That said, never be too proud to inquire whether you can still submit your application. Know that scholarships are often dependent on qualifying factors, such as your grade point average (GPA); Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is determined by the FAFSA; your gender, nationality, race, sexuality, etc.; talents, including musical, athletic, theatrical etc.; area of interest – you get the idea.

Helpful Tip #5: Consider ALL sources. This includes your place of employment, your parents’ place of employment, and other sources within your college. For example, don’t just look at the program’s scholarship page, but the college/university as well. If you are applying for a graduate program, check to see if it is housed in a Graduate School at the college/university. If so, check the Graduate School’s funding page.

Helpful Tip #6: Contact the college/university’s Financial Aid Office for assistance. They can also help inform you as to any available funding.

Helpful Tip #7: Check external scholarship websites. These are usually free databases (some have paid services) with a variety of scholarship opportunities available, that are complied from a variety of sources. Some good starting places would be:

www.fastweb.com

www.edvisors.com

www.cappex.com

globalscholarshipadvisor.com

Helpful Tip #8: Do NOT take out private loans unless absolutely necessary! My biggest piece of advice is stay away from private lenders. The interest rates are higher than federal student loans and they are far less forgiving or open to forbearance, deferments, income-based repayment, etc. Learn from my mistake and avoid private loans at all costs.

(4) Make sure you have a place to live and/or a stable internet connection

Again, with COVID-19, it is hard to predict how Resident Life will be impacted. It might not be, but I always say hope for the best, prepare for the worst. If you have chosen to attend an in-person program, make sure you have your living situation figured out (i.e., whether you plan to live on- or off-campus). If you have decided to live on-campus, check to see whether you need a meal plan and, if so, what plan options best suit you. Also, be considering items you will need to purchase for your dorm – I plan to publish a separate post on this in the future.

If you are in a hybrid or online program, be sure you have a stable internet connection as well as access to (and capability of using) the appropriate programs/software. Most hybrid/online programs utilize programs like Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, etc. as well as video conferencing software such as skype or zoom. Your success in the program will be dependent upon your having the technology to access these interfaces.

Regardless as to whether you are in-person, hybrid, or online, you will be expected to use the Microsoft Office Suite, such as Word and Excel. So, be prepared to utilize technology.

(5) Once you have been admitted (Congratulations!), you will need to register for classes.

Check to see first whether you have been assigned an academic or faculty advisor. If so, they should be reaching out to you to schedule your courses and/or sending communications on how to do so. If not, you will want to check the Registrar’s webpage for instructions. In order to receive a GA, TA, RA, or work-study position, you will need to be registered for classes. Do not be afraid to ask your department/college/university for help!

(6) Lastly, make sure to know who you will be working with

Find out who your advisors/counselors (i.e., academic, financial aid, etc.) are. Also, know who the Chair, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students/Graduate Students, and Dean of your department/college are. It is also good to know who your Dean of Student Success, Registrar, Provost, and President are – it is unlikely you will ever be contacting the Provost or President, but you are about to be part of an institution, with a culture all its own. Don’t be afraid to show some school spirit and pride by knowing some history of your department/college/university, including who all the important players are.

Congratulations and good luck! Be sure to subscribe for more insider information.

Your Academic Advisor

The Beginning of Your Academic Journey

No matter where you are in your pursuit of higher education, this is a new beginning. Maybe you are a high school senior trying to sift through the vast number of higher education options, trying to understand the difference between public and private schools; regional and national accreditation; or maybe even community colleges and four-year universities. Maybe you are asking yourself: what is liberal arts, anyway? How do I pay for this? What major should I be going into?

Or, maybe you are already in college, in debt, and have changed your major three times – you may be surprised to know that this is the average number of major changes and that I am part of this statistic. Maybe you are struggling in classes and need guidance studying. Maybe you are wondering: do they just know when I am finished with classes and hand me my degree?

Better yet, maybe you have made it through college (congrats!) and, being the glutton for punishment that you are, you have decided to go to back for your graduate or professional degree! You’re a pro at this, right? How is any of this different from undergrad? But did you know that graduate students are not eligible to receive federal grant money? Now, how are you planning on paying for this?

Hi, my name is Sara, and I am here to help demystify all this and more. You can learn more about my background on my About page, but to summarize: with over 5 years of Academic Advising experience at the community college level, university level, and both undergraduate and graduate advising, I feel confident that I can help guide you in ways that most students are not afforded. I am also working on my M.A. in Philosophy and Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, so I have a unique inside student perspective as well.

I look forward to our journey together!