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How To Apply for Financial Aid: A Guide for Students and Families


How to apply for financial aid: Back view of four students walking

There’s no denying that higher education is a serious investment. High school students who dream of going to college may feel like attending college is out of reach financially, especially if they’d like to attend a four-year institution.

Fortunately, the federal government has an office of financial aid that offers a multitude of scholarships, grants, and other funding sources that can significantly reduce college costs. Since the aid process can be overwhelming and confusing, we’re making it easy. Here’s how to apply for financial aid to make the price of college more affordable.

How To Apply for Financial Aid

The federal government offers a myriad of programs to make college accessible. But how much does college really cost, and how much does financial aid cover?

The cost of attendance varies by institution, and tuition costs are influenced by factors like location, economic trends, desired area of study, and more. How much you receive in aid depends primarily on your family’s financial need.

Still, all students are eligible for financial aid, regardless of how high a family’s income is. Additionally, colleges use the information on the FAFSA form to award their own scholarships, whether based on academics, athletics, or income. Filling out the FAFSA ensures you have access to the most options.

Apply for FAFSA

The U.S. Department of Education offers a variety of funding sources to help students and their families pay for college. In order to determine aid eligibility (how much funding you’re able to receive), everyone needs to complete the free application for federal student aid (FAFSA).

You can complete this form digitally at fafsa.ed.gov. This is also the website address for the federal student aid information center where you’ll find information on how to complete the FAFSA, which aid options are available, and how to repay your loans.

There’s also a new FAFSA smartphone app, which makes the form more accessible to families who may not have a computer. Additionally, the financial aid application can be printed out and mailed to the federal financial aid office at P.O. Box 7654, London, KY 40742-7654.

FAFSA Documents

How to apply for financial aid: student studying in lecture room

To complete the FAFSA application, you’ll need to gather a number of important documents. These include:

  • Tax information, including your parents’ federal income tax return
  • Family income information
  • Your social security number

While the idea of accessing tax information might seem stressful, the FAFSA website makes it easy. You can use the online form to connect to the IRS data retrieval tool, which will instantly gather your financial information and add it to the form with speed and accuracy. Internet access (or smartphone access) is required to complete these forms, and it’s available at a public library or at school.

If you’re not a U.S. Citizen and you don’t have a social security number, you may still be eligible to receive federal financial aid. For example, you may be qualified for non-citizen status if you have a green card. You may also qualify if you’re a permanent resident or if you have an arrival-departure record (such as if you arrived in the United States as a refugee or seeking asylum).

School Information

The application process also requires that you know which school’s you’d like to attend. That’s because the financial information on your FAFSA gets sent directly to each school’s financial aid office. You can use an online tool to find your school code where it should be listed.

If you don’t see the code for an institution you’d like to apply for, you can call that school’s financial aid office or visit their website to find it. It’s best to make a list of schools you plan to apply to before you start the FAFSA, and gather the school codes. This will shorten the time it takes to complete the FAFSA, which will help you get your award letter sooner.

Types of Financial Aid

How to apply for financial aid: College students sitting in the park

After you’ve completed your FAFSA, it only takes 7 to 10 days to receive your financial aid award letter. This document will include details on your financial aid package, including which grants, loans, and funding sources you can receive from the U.S. Department of Education.

The type of financial assistance you may receive varies based on your family’s financial situation and your academic performance. Here’s a look at the main financial aid programs available and who’s eligible for each.

Federal Student Loans

There are four types of federal student loans available:

  • Direct unsubsidized loans, which are not given based on financial need and need to be repaid by the student
  • Direct subsidized loans, which are given based on financial need and need to be repaid by the student
  • Direct PLUS loans, which are given to parents of undergraduate students to help pay for college and need to be repaid by the parent
  • Direct consolidation loans, which are a way of combining all federal loans into a single loan for easier management and repayment

A student’s financial aid package may contain a combination of these different funding sources. However, the overall aid given in the form of federal student loans will vary greatly by the student.

Need-Based Solutions

Aside from direct loans, there are a number of need-based solutions available. For example, the Perkins Loan is given to students who demonstrate exceptional financial need. Perkins Loans have a low-interest rate, which makes them more accessible to students and families with financial constraints.

Another common need-based funding solution is work-study. Students who demonstrate financial need are eligible for this program, which sets aside funding that students can earn through on-campus jobs.

Since work-study funds are earned through employment, they don’t have to be repaid. It also helps guarantee that a student will have funds to cover additional college expenses not covered by tuition-based loans, such as textbooks and meals.

Lastly, grants are given to students who demonstrate financial need. These funding sources don’t have to be repaid. The most common federal grants are Pell Grants, which are given when students demonstrate exceptional financial need.

The maximum amount of Pell Grant funding a student can receive in the 2020-21 academic year is $6,345, but this amount can vary each year.

Merit-Based Scholarships

Group of graduates wearing toga during commencement

Merit-based scholarships are given based on academic performance. If you’re a motivated student with good grades, try your chances at a merit-based scholarship. Unlike the previously mentioned grants and awards, however, you must apply to most merit-based scholarships directly. Fortunately, there are a number of resources you can use to find and apply for such scholarships. These include:

Remember: there are many scholarships available for specific demographics, interests, and passions. For example, first-generation college students, women, students from certain locations, and students pursuing science and math may be eligible for specific awards. You may increase your chances of receiving funding by applying for a niche scholarship, as there may be less competition.

How To Apply for Financial Aid and Pay for College

College is expensive, but financial aid can help you afford it. When you apply for FAFSA, you'll receive an aid offer that details everything you're eligible for. This may include a combination of grants and loans, and many student financial aid packages are designed specifically to assist families who demonstrate exceptional need.

There's also a wealth of merit-based scholarships available as well as state financial aid and funding from local and community organizations. For more information on preparing for college, see how TutorMe can help you improve your test scores and excel this school year.

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