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Understanding Financial Aid

Financial aid is simply money that helps you pay for college. There are three kinds: Grants: also called scholarships or gift aid, are the best kind of financial aid. They are free money that you don't have to pay back. Loans: are debts that you have to pay back and are obviously not as good grants. Work-study: The federal government subsidizes some campus and nonprofit jobs for students. Generally, work-study jobs are awarded only to students who the college says are financially needy. The jobs typically don't pay especially well. Students may find better-paying jobs off campus.Securing financial aid is just one of many important milestones you'll face in your college career.

Apply Often

You should apply for aid every year, even if you think you don't qualify. There are many factors affecting eligibility for financial aid. For example, a student who didn't qualify one year might become eligible during the next year when a brother or sister enrolls in college. A change in family financial circumstances might affect your eligibility for student aid. You might be eligible if all of these apply to you: You are a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen, You are a high school graduate or GED holder, You are working toward a degree or certificate in an eligible program, You are not in default on a federal student loan and do not owe money to the government related to other grants or loans.


Getting financial aid starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. By filling it out, you apply for the U.S. Department of Education's federal student aid programs, the largest source of student aid in America. In many cases, you're also automatically applying for funds from your state and your school as well. It's recommended that you complete the FAFSA online. More help is available online, and you'll get a response within 3-5 days, rather than 2-3 weeks by mail.Just be sure to apply for everything you can, including federal, state, and school or college aid, as well as private scholarships. Also, you must maintain academic eligibility as you progress through school.

Meet Deadlines

There are specific eligibility requirements that must be met and certain limits to each aid program that may affect eligibility down the road. Write down the college deadlines for each school of interest and adhere to the deadlines. Pay attention to deadlines. All schools have grant aid available to those students who qualify, but many have limited funds. Students who pay attention to deadlines have an advantage over those who don't. Even if you have to estimate figures on your FAFSA or institutional applications, you should get them in on time. The sooner you file your application, the better your chances of receiving aid. Also, you should file your income tax return as early in the year as possible.Some institutions have scholarship dates that are earlier than the FAFSA deadline. Many students think that they should apply for scholarships at the same time they are completing the FAFSA, but that is incorrect. Students can lose out on these lucrative awards if they don't realize that there may be separate scholarship and FAFSA filing dates.The majority of students file the FAFSA online. We strongly recommend electronic filing over the paper application to save time and prevent errors. In their rush to complete the FAFSA, families often make costly errors. Here are three of the biggest errors and ways to prevent them:

  • Filling out the FAFSA incompletely or inaccurately. Incomplete or inaccurate information can cause delays in processing. Errors can also result in a reduction of the total aid offered to your child.
  • Not submitting all of the required applications for all possible sources of aid. For example, many schools require a supplemental application for institutional aid. Confirm, and reconfirm if necessary, that you have submitted all required forms and that the appropriate individual or organization has received them.
  • Not submitting application forms by the published priority filing dates. Most schools require you to submit the FAFSA and other financial aid application documents by a priority filing date. Families that miss this date are frequently offered less financial aid or less desirable financial aid than they would have been offered otherwise.