For many, the scariest part of college is the cost. Tuition and living expenses have been skyrocketing for years, the average college debt is growing annually, and the financial rewards for getting a diploma are increasingly uncertain.
That said, the cost of attendance is still something that thousands of individuals and families are successfully navigating every year, and you can do it too — if, as always, you go in with a plan. Below you will find plenty of information to help you understand financial aid, as well as links and advice on how to handle the money side of college. (Are you a student who is low-income, homeless, or has little to no financial support? That's covered too.)
For the super-short version of typical financial aid options, you can also just visit "3 Steps to Getting Financial Aid" at the CollegeBoard site. A still-short-but-slightly-longer version can be found at the Federal Student Aid site.
The Need for Financial Aid
Painful, ballooning costs are normally associated with four-year schools: one-to-three year community college or vocational programs are usually priced to be more affordable, and the costs have remained more stable. (However, note that financial aid is still available at most institutions, including these 'cheaper' colleges, so always fill out your FAFSA — more on that below. And if you are worried about attending any type of college because of the cost, check out MoneyGeek's resource guide for low-income and homeless students.)
Within four-year schools, we have a further cost difference between public and private colleges. The actual number is changing constantly, but as of August 2014 the average cost PER YEAR of attending an in-state public college is around $18,000, while the average cost per year at a private institution can be approximated at a whopping $40,000. (Out-of-state public schools split the difference with an average around $30,000.)
At first glance, this makes private colleges seem out of reach for many students. However, the cost difference between a public and private institution can be deceptive, depending on the student and the school. If you are a good student, athlete, musician, etc., you have a good shot at merit-based scholarships, and private schools may be willing to offer larger scholarships in order to have you. (After all, they depend on 'prestige' in a way that public schools don't, so it's to their long-run advantage if they produce more distinguished graduates.)
If it turns out that there's a private school you would really love to attend, try applying and see what they offer financially before crossing them off your list due to expense. Depending on you and the schools you apply to, you may end up in more need of financial aid at a public college than you would at a private.
The Basics: How Financial Aid Works
The overwhelming majority of students who attend college receive financial aid of one form or another, and there are two basic types of aid.
1. 'FREE MONEY'. The is the no-strings-attached money: it is given outright, and does not need to be paid back. (At worst, it may be contingent on keeping your grades up or some similar requirement.) Types of aid that fall into this category include merit-based scholarships, state or federal grants, and certain scholarships awarded by various private organizations.
- Merit-based scholarships. These are scholarships awarded based on a student's talents/abilities, whether academic, athletic, artistic, whatever. These are given by the college itself, and can be awarded in large amounts, occasionally up to full tuition. (Scholarships made available through external organizations can also be given out based on merit, but would be listed with 'Other Scholarships' below). If you receive a merit-based scholarship, you may be required to meet certain performance standards in order to keep receiving aid: for example, if you attend on an academic scholarship, your GPA will need to stay above a certain level.
How to Apply: Once you've narrowed your college list down to just a few schools, take a look at each to see what sorts of merit scholarships are available. You can use a site like MeritAid to get an overview (just use the 'Search by College Name' feature to find lists of scholarships), but it's a good idea to cross-reference this with scholarship information found on each school's website. If you find a scholarship mentioned in one place, but can't find information about it anywhere else, contact the school directly to ask about it.
Merit scholarships sometimes involve a rigorous application process (involving interviews, portfolios, references, etc.), but they can also be awarded based on nothing but your general application to the school. Again, make sure to check the requirements of each scholarship well in advance to make sure you hit them all — and consider applying early to improve your odds of landing one.
- Grants. Grants provide need-based financial aid that does not need to be repaid. A fuller overview of grants (and links to information on the types of grants available) can be found here.
How to Apply: Applications for grants are lumped in when you fill out your FAFSA, and again will be based on your assessed level of financial need. Scroll down to 'More About the FAFSA' for information.
To see grants commonly made available at Iowa colleges, visit the Iowa College Student Aid Commission site.
- Other scholarships. A catch-all category including any scholarship offered through private organizations (i.e, not through your college and not from the government). These are often similar to merit-based scholarships, and a student's character and academic/community service history are usually big factors, but need is often also factored in. General scholarships may be available through businesses, banks, non-profits, and organizations of all types at all levels (local, regional, national, etc). They typically award amounts in the range of $100 to a few thousand.
The scholarships available in the DeWitt area can be found listed on the Central Community website.
Some online databases can help you find additional scholarships you qualify for (such as CollegeBoard, CollegeNet, Cappex, Scholarships.com, or FastWeb), but be prepared to wade through a lot of ads and irrelevant results to find what you need, and avoid giving out more information than needed or signing up for services you don't want. Solid advice for making the scholarship search as safe as possible can be found here. (You could also consider setting up a special email account just for your college/scholarship search, so that your main account won't get clogged with junk mail.)
Federal Loans are the most common by far — but BE WARY HERE. Always be realistic first and foremost: if you flat-out can't afford the loan you would need, this is no time to cross your fingers and hope for the best. Debt that you can't handle can cripple you for years once you graduate (and keep in mind that not everyone does graduate, so it is possible to get all the debt AND no degree), and sometimes causes harm to your credit score or lifestyle potential that you can never recover from. Manageable debt is fine and to be expected here, but staggering debt? Not worth it.
If you ever begin to struggle with loans (before or during college attendance), get in touch with a representative from the college's Financial Aid Office to talk over your options.
- Federal loans. To apply for these, just fill out the FAFSA (scroll down to the next section for more information). To learn more about the different types of common federal loans, check out this overview at StaffordLoan.com.
- State loans. Again, apply by filling out the FAFSA (although state deadlines do apply).
- Private loans. One overview of the private loan situation can be found at SimpleTuition, and you can also use the on-site tool to find a sample of the private loans that may be available to you. An alternative/expanded take is also available here (with several private loan search links built in), and FinAid also offers a good point-by-point walk-through of why and how to find a private lender. Just keep in mind that you should usually try to exhaust federal aid options first: see Federal vs Private Loans to learn why.
More About the FAFSA
The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is an application you submit yearly to the government to see what need-based financial aid you are eligible to receive for college. As indicated by the name, it costs nothing to fill out, so in every student's case it is 100% something you should do.
For most students, filling out the FAFSA turns out to be the single biggest contributor to receiving significant financial aid. It can point you to state and federal money, and can get you connected to both loans and grants (see above for the difference). It can be filled out beginning January 1st of the year you would like to attend college.
If you are ready to fill out the FAFSA, check that you have the 7 Things You Need to get started, and then jump right in. If you need more explanation, try a general online search for the FAFSA; there's plenty of information out there on how to fill out the forms, so you should be able to find a guide that makes sense to you.
The Aid Process in Motion: What to Do
Step by step, this is usually what the process of getting college paid for looks like:
- If possible, start the college search early. The biggest scholarship and financial aid opportunities are sometimes found in the fall of your senior year, so consider trying for these. And even if you don't intend to apply early, the sooner you research the requirements for scholarships and loans, the better you'll be able to prepare for those.
- Select your top-choice colleges and gather information about the cost of attendance (including tuition, room and board, and other fees). Find out what the average student receives for financial aid, and what the average debt burden is upon graduation. One easy option for this is CollegeData: just look up a school in the search field, and then check the numbers under 'COA' (cost of attendance), 'Need Met', 'Merit Aid' (depending on how likely you are to receive some), and 'Student Debt' (i.e. average debt remaining after graduation).
- Figure out an early estimate of what you may receive through need-based aid. The biggest factor here will be your 'EFC', or 'Expected Family Contribution', given your family's income: an estimate calculator is available through the FAFSA4Caster. Just keep in mind that any estimate of need-based aid you might receive should NOT be taken as gospel, and is just meant to give you a rough idea of what you may be able to afford.
- Pick one or two safety-net schools you are confident you could pay for. From this point forward, have reasonable expectations. Even if you do get accepted to your dream school(s), be prepared to really analyze the costs involved, and to fall back on a different school if the cost of your first choice is too high.
- Look for one-off scholarship opportunities (and be looking as early as possible). These may be available through local or regional organizations, through private companies, or from several other sources (see "The Basics — Other Scholarships" above for links). Make a note of the deadlines, and work on applying for these scholarships if the deadline is close. Continue this process throughout your senior year.
- Apply to all desired schools. If an admissions application will double as an application for merit-based aid, make sure to submit an especially polished application (see our application tips here). If separate applications are needed to apply to other merit-based scholarships available from a school (e.g. department scholarships for music/art/etc.), submit applications for these scholarships at the same time.
- Await responses from the colleges you've applied to. For each school you're accepted into, tally up what the final cost would be for each, factoring in any scholarships you have received. Out of the colleges you can afford, select which one you'll attend.
- If you have not already done so, complete your FAFSA to apply for need-based aid from the state and federal government. (See "More About the FAFSA" above.)
- Follow up with any forms/processes specified by your college to finish registering for aid. From this point on, if you have any questions, contact the Financial Aid office at your college and they should be able to assist you. If you will be receiving government loans, entrance counseling will also be made available.
Additional Ways to Ease the Money Burden
For many students, the majority of money for college comes from a combination of parent contributions, loans, and merit scholarships provided by the college. Other scholarships and grants can help, but are likely to provide much smaller amounts that may not take care of as much as you'd like.
To help supplement your college fund, consider the following:
- Jobs during college. Work-study jobs are often available based on need, and there may be other opportunities for employment on campus and in the surrounding community. Some jobs may offer solid part-time hours or go to full hours during the summer, all of which can help finance college.
- Jobs before college. If you have your sights set on a particular college, but are uncomfortable with the debt you'd have if you went immediately, you could find a job to work for a year (or a few years) beforehand to save up some money. A big enough cushion can cut the debt afterwards significantly, but you would likely have to couple this strategy with living somewhere rent-free in order to really get the benefits.
- Attend community college first. If you want the opportunities offered by a four-year college, but can't manage all four years of tuition/living expenses, you can always attend a community college for a year or two first to finish off your general education requirements. (For example, you may be able to take care of general math, science and English/writing credits before going to a four-year school to study something more specialized.) The temporary swap can significantly drop your overall tuition costs — just make sure beforehand that classes you take at your community college will transfer to your institution of choice as official credits. If you already have a four-year college in mind to transfer to, just call or email to ask and they should be able to tell you definitively what will and will not transfer.