When it comes to financial aid, there's no definitive list of resources or single set of instructions, because financial aid options are almost always different from one student to the next. However, there are some general steps that you should consider taking. The following guidelines will take you through the process and point you toward most major sources of financial aid.
Step 1: File the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
File the FAFSA before you enroll in any college, and include multiple colleges in your FAFSA application. You can enter up to 10 Federal School Codes on your FAFSA, which means up to 10 different financial aid departments will receive your information and provide you with a financial aid package, (assuming you are accepted to their schools). By filing the FAFSA, you will automatically be considered for any available federal aid, plus some types of aid offered directly from your chosen colleges and by your state of residence.
Most traditional colleges participate in the Candidate Reply Date Agreement (CRDA). Per this agreement, accepted students don't have to commit to any acceptance offer until at least May 1. If you're applying to colleges during the traditional admissions timeframe (winter and spring months), this rule gives you time to choose from multiple offers and multiple financial aid packages. Why is this important? Because two schools with similar sticker prices may have dramatically different net costs, depending on what they're willing to offer you in aid.
Ideally, you should file your FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1, which is the beginning of the traditional financial aid season. Filing early in the year means federal processors and your chosen colleges will receive your data ahead of applications from most other students. Since many financial aid awards come from limited pools of funding, it's not uncommon for some forms of aid to be gone by the time latecomers submit their applications.
Attention adult/continuing education students: Unlike high school seniors, your college plans probably don't fit traditional molds. You may prefer college programs with flexible, year-round start dates, which means you might be filing your FAFSA in the summer, fall, or early winter. There's nothing wrong with starting college this way. Just be advised that you may initially miss out on some of the first-come/first-serve awards offered by your state or by the federal government. You can get back on track for the next financial aid award year by filing a new FAFSA immediately after your first January as a college student.
Step 2: Consult Your State's Department of Higher Education
After you file your FAFSA, you'll want to check out the awards that are specific to your home state. You'll automatically be considered for many of them just by completing the FAFSA, but some awards involve separate applications or supporting documents. This guide outlines a sampling of scholarships and grants that are exclusive to your state; some are government funded, while others are sponsored by professional organizations or private endowments.
As you'll soon discover, many state-based aid awards are only redeemable at in-state colleges. Certain professionals — including teachers, nurses, social workers, and lawyers – can often find incentive programs that will significantly reduce their in-state college costs in exchange for work service agreements after graduation. This is another reason why it pays to explore financial aid options before choosing a college. Once you're familiar with your state's offerings, you may decide it makes sense to study locally or online, through a college that's based in your home state.
For specific details pertaining to your state, contact your state department of higher education (a.k.a. student aid commission or board of regents). Some states offer online portals, where you can enter your data and apply for all state-sponsored awards at once. Other states simply list available programs, and offer links to the individual applications. If you can't find your state's department of higher education, or if its financial aid offerings are still unclear, contact the financial aid office at the nearest community college.
Step 3: Contact Your Chosen Colleges
Even if you're only applying to one or two colleges, you should contact those financial aid offices directly, and ask about institutional aid. Institutional aid may include scholarships, grants, or work-study programs. Colleges, their academic departments, and their alumni often develop financial aid programs to help diversify the student body. At selective schools, aid is often geared towards low-income students or students from urban/rural communities. At less competitive schools and at schools with open admissions policies, merit-based awards are frequently offered to new students with strong ACT/SAT test scores or solid professional backgrounds.
In many cases, students are automatically considered for these awards just by applying to the school and filing a FAFSA. But there are some awards that require special applications and additional materials, like essays, letters of recommendation, resumes, or work samples. In some cases, the awards don't become available until a student's second or third year of study. Knowing about these awards in advance means you can start working toward the necessary criteria, and hopefully saving money on future semesters.
Step 4: Investigate Private Scholarships and Support Programs
You've applied for federal and state aid by filing a FAFSA. You've investigated any additional state-based programs by contacting your state's department of higher education. You've also contacted the financial aid offices of the colleges you're considering.
Now you can start researching more miscellaneous forms of financial aid — including private scholarships and employer-sponsored awards. There's no single reference guide that will list them all, but our scholarship listings offer a good head start. You may also want to read our advice on finding and applying for scholarships, and on Weird, Wacky, and Lesser-Known Scholarships. Scholarship seekers should also check out the Frequently Asked Questions section; it includes some important tips and warnings about private sources of aid.
Financial Aid Strategy
Awards You May Be Considered For
File the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Paper applications are still available, but the online version is processed faster and makes it easier for you to re-file with each new year of college.
Federal Work- Study
Need-Based State Awards
Need-Based School Awards
Complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1; many awards are granted on a first-come, first-serve basis, until funding is depleted.
When completing the FAFSA, include the Federal School Code of any college you are considering. If the college doesn’t have a Federal School Code, it’s not eligible to offer federal aid.
You may prefer college programs with flexible, year-round start dates, which means you might be filing your FAFSA in the summer, fall, or early winter. If so, be advised that you may initially miss out on some of the first-come/first-serve awards offered by your state or by the federal government.
Consult your state’s department of higher education, sometimes called a “student aid commission” or a “board of regents.”
Complete any necessary state applications and/or register in the state’s financial aid account portal.
State Tuition Waivers
State-Based Military Aid
Interstate, Resident Tuition Agreements
This Guide only contains a sampling of state-based awards. You may find additional options and updated details by visiting your state’s higher education website.
Some states operate online portals to store your student profile and all your financial aid data, so you can complete forms, update personal information, and check the status of your state awards – all in one place.
In most cases, financial aid that comes from your state can only be used at in-state colleges. Some state awards further stipulate that only certain types of colleges are eligible. If you’re interested in any state award, check for a list of approved or participating schools.
Contact the financial aid offices of the colleges you are considering. Ask about institutional aid, or college-sponsored awards. Additional applications may be required.
College-Sponsored Awards and Scholarships
Academic departments and alumni organizations often offer scholarships to qualifying, incoming students.
Research options before classes begin, so you’re not saddled with homework and financial aid paperwork at the same time.
Apply to multiple colleges, so you have at least a few different financial aid packages for comparison shopping. Note: most colleges won’t present you with a financial aid package until you complete the FAFSA and are accepted.
Research private sources of financial aid.
Employer Tuition Assistance
Speak to someone in your HR office about employer-sponsored tuition assistance.
Research private scholarships. Good places to start an online search: enter “scholarship” + your desired major, your sex, your race, your ethnic heritage, and any organizations you’re involved with. Be leery of any award that requires a fee.
Some private scholarships are need-based awards; they may ask applicants to provide earnings statements or copies of recent tax returns. You may want to contact a financial aid advisor at your prospective college to ensure these are reputable organizations. If you decide to proceed, you should always black out your social security number.
Stay informed after you enroll in college and after you graduate.
Federal Loan Forgiveness Programs
If you’re entering a field that addresses public needs, you may be eligible for a loan forgiveness program. If interested, plan your job search accordingly.
As a student, you and your family may be eligible for tax credits or deductions. Keep copies of all tuition, textbook, and loan payments. Read the current IRS information for students.
Stay informed about legislative changes that may allow you to consolidate student loans or change your repayment terms. If you experience financial hardship, contact any student lenders immediately. You may be eligible for deferment or forbearance options that can help you avoid defaulting.