Few of us can pay out of pocket for our entire college bill. If you are not one of those fortunate few, you’ll have to have some financial aid backing. Financial aid comes in several forms: grants, scholarships, loans and work-study programs.
Let’s start with the really good stuff – FREE MONEY!
Grants and scholarships provide money that you do not need to repay (yes, it doesn’t get better than this). Grants are typically need-based while scholarships are typically merit-based. You can also get scholarships simply based on your affiliations or interests, i.e. your parent’s employer, religious affiliation, athletics, etc.
In order to apply for a grant, you need to start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Fill this out as early as possible so that you’re eligible for as much aid as possible. Whether or not you think you’ll be eligible for aid, you should still fill this out! Check out the FAFSA4caster for a sneak peek of your financial aid eligibility.
Scholarships come in all shapes and sizes and from all kinds of different sources. This can make finding them a little daunting, but it also means that there will almost certainly be a scholarship out there for everyone. Take some time. Do your research. Be creative where you look! You could win a scholarship for making a prom dress out of Duck Brand Duct Tape, or for being tall (like I said, be creative where you look). Make sure you talk to the admissions office of the school you’re going to (or have applied to) as well as to your high school guidance counselor.
You can use this Scholarship Search Tool sponsored by the Department of Labor to get you started.
Another form of aid can be found in student loans. However, this is not free money (not even close, in fact). Look long and hard for grants or scholarships before turning to loans. This money will have to be repaid with the additional cost of interest tacked on. There are both federal and private loans available. Regardless of what kind of loan you apply for, be absolutely certain that you know what the interest rate is, whether or not the interest rate is flexible (we recommend going with a fixed rate loan), and what the terms of repayment are. As with grants, you’ll have to fill out the FAFSA in order to apply for federal loans.
Finally, if you’re willing to put a little sweat equity into your college degree look into work-study. Federal work-study programs are available for students that qualify based on financial need (it’s basically a part-time job while you’re enrolled in classes). Check with your college admissions office to see what kind of work-study opportunities they have. Yes, you have to work for this money, but, it’s interest-free and goes right to chiseling away at those college expenses so that you have less to pay off later.
In conclusion… be smart, be assertive, and do your research. When you start off your career with significantly less college debt than your friends, you’ll be glad you put the time in now!