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How to Start Planning for Financial Aid

What are actionable steps for financial aid? Where do I get started and how can I find out what I need? This post will walk you through the process so you can make informed decisions without hurting your chances.

What Do I Do With all this Information?

Here’s a step-by-step of the route we recommend you take to understand and apply for financial aid. (Everything is explained below in detail.)

The three steps to estimate what your financial aid will look like are:

1. Prepare a list of the colleges you are interested in or have been admitted to.

2. Work through the Net Price Calculator for each school, starting here . Print or save your results.

3. Head to the College Scorecard to compare the schools from your list. Print or save your results.

The three steps to review your actual financial aid award:

1. Apply for financial aid by completing the FAFSA.

2. Review your Financial Aid Award Letter. Print or save your results.

3. Review your College Financing Plan. Print or save your results.

These steps will give you an unofficial way to estimate your financial aid award and then assess your actual award for each school you apply to.

Also remember to review the Financial Aid Office websites for each school. Take notes on additional financial aid opportunities available. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask the Financial Aid Office at the schools you are interested in!

Early College Financial Aid Planning

You just might be ending your junior year or starting your senior year in high school, and already are being asked to think about college and where you might want to go or what you might want to do. It’s a lot. Lost in that thought process becomes how you pay for it. It’s never too early to start thinking about how to afford college, whether it is a community college, four-year public or private college or university, or career school.

Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is always the best way to become qualified for federal, state, and institutional financial aid. This means getting qualified for grants (don’t have to be repaid), loans (do have to be repaid) and work-study opportunities (real paying jobs on campus). But there are steps you can take before and after you complete the FAFSA to familiarize yourself with your options.

Have questions about where to get that information? The good news is that there are multiple sources to learn about financial aid at the schools you are interested in.

The Financial Aid Office

Perhaps the most resourceful place to look at financial aid sources specific to the schools you are interested in is to check out the websites of those Financial Aid Offices. They will describe the federal aid programs available, but better yet they will tell you about what grant programs are offered by that state and the school itself. They may even offer a listing of scholarships (more money that does not have to be repaid) local to the school.

The Financial Aid Office may also direct you to look at the college’s foundation for more scholarship opportunities. A college foundation is a separate organization that exists to support the school and its students.

But what happens when you want to compare multiple schools? Reviewing each individual website seems like a lot of work, and it is. Here are some places to check out that allow you to make comparisons across schools…

Net Price Calculator

Colleges are required by law to provide students with the ability to quickly simulate their FAFSA information and determine an estimated financial aid award at their school. This is done with a Net Price Calculator, which is intended to provide you the net price you pay for attending that school by reviewing examples of charges, such as tuition, fees, room, and board, then subtracting your estimated financial aid. This tool is available on any college’s website. If you don’t want to poke around each website and want one place to show you all Net Price Calculators, the US Department of Education has what you need.

College Scorecard

The US Department of Education also provides the College Scorecard to students reviewing their options for college. The Scorecard is an online tool that allows you to compare various pieces of information, including costs, graduation rates, employment rates, average loan debt, and loan default rates. You can compare multiple schools’ side by side, too.

Don’t be Afraid to Apply Early

The FAFSA comes out on October 1 for the following Fall semester start, and it uses your tax and income information from two years ago. Yes, it’s a confusing timeline … charts help. Let’s break it down.

So, if you want to go to college starting in the Fall of 2023, you should complete the 2023-2024 FAFSA, which uses you and your family’s income and tax information from 2021. The 2023-2024 FAFSA becomes available for you to complete on October 1, 2022.

After You Apply for Financial Aid

If you’ve applied for financial aid and have submitted everything the Financial Aid Office has asked of you, you should have then received a financial aid notification from each school. Beware, schools use different words to describe the same thing. This notification is also known as your financial aid package, financial aid award, financial aid offer, or award letter. This notification will show you what types of grants, loans, and other sources of financial aid you are being offered to attend their college. If you didn’t, reach out to that school’s Financial Aid Office to see what the holdup might be.

Examples of types of awards you might see are a Federal Pell Grant, Federal Direct Loans, state scholarships or grants, and college-provided scholarships or grants. It is most likely presumed in your notification that your award is based on being enrolled full-time, which is generally 12 credits or more. Keep in mind that your grant funding may adjust if you take less credits … but so will your charges.

Your school might also provide you with a College Financing Plan, which is a tool that schools use to provide students information about their financial aid package once they are awarded. The format for this tool is uniform for all schools, but the catch is that schools are not required to use it. Since these are provided by your college directly, here is a template of the College Financing Plan to get familiar with how it looks. Always ask your Financial Aid Office how to access your College Financing Plan.

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