Three general rules that apply to financial aid:
plan ahead, ask questions, take one step at a time.

Paying for college is an issue for every family. Many do not have the resources to pay the costs of a college education without unreasonable sacrifices. They must look for student financial aid to provide access and choice to college. With a basic knowledge about how the system works, financial obstacles should never prohibit you from fulfilling your dreams of post-secondary education. Financial aid comes from four different sources: The federal government, state governments, numerous private sector entities, and the schools themselves. Students apply for federal aid by submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)-it is referred to as a need analysis document. This application should be filed as soon after January 1 in your senior year as possible.

Your cost of education will be determined each academic year. It will be made up of your costs for tuition, fees, room and board while you are enrolled, books and supplies, transportation expenses, and miscellaneous expenses. Costs for dependent care or costs associated with a handicap that are not paid by another resource can also be included in your cost of education, if appropriate. Since your family contribution should be a constant figure, no matter where you go to college, it is the cost associated with enrolling at your chosen college that will affect your financial need and, therefore, the amount of financial aid that you are eligible to receive. You will receive an output document as a result of your application. Review the information on this form to make sure it is accurate. If corrections are necessary, follow the instructions that are provided carefully. Each state has financial aid programs available to eligible students. Every college will have resources to assist some of its students. Learning about these resources and what you need to do to qualify for them is an important part of your investigation.

Finally, because attractive financial aid resources can sometimes be limited, it will often be valuable for you to pursue help from sources in the private sector. Do some investigating on your own. Go to the library and ask if they have any reference books. Organizations, businesses, foundations, churches, clubs and even individuals sometimes invest in college education’s of deserving and enterprising students. You may learn of nationally-known donors through reading, but there also some wonderful resources in your own community. Again, don’t be shy about asking. Be prepared to sell yourself. Financial aid, from any source, will come as one of four types: scholarships, grants, employment and loans.

Scholarships are generally offered to a student in recognition of excellent academic achievement, high test scores, leadership, or for talent or skills in a particular academic curriculum or extracurricular activity. Grants are moneys that do not require repayment and which are awarded to students to help in meeting their defined (by need analysis) financial needs. Because they are gifts, grants are the most attractive type of need-based financial aid. They are generally targeted to the most needy students. Complete your application early in order to receive full consideration for all grant programs for which you are eligible. The two major federal grants are the Federal Pell Grant and the Federal Supplementary Educational Opportunity Grant. Each state also has a grant program for which you should apply. Employment is work to earn a part of the money that you need to pay your college expenses. Most colleges participate in the Federal Work-Study program through which students with need augment their educational experience with part-time, usually on-campus employment. Many colleges will also have additional employment opportunities for their students. Loans, of course, require repayment. Loans have become the most readily available resources for assisting in the payment of college expenses. The beauty of student loans is they have relatively low interest rates and generally do not have to be repaid until after you cease your college education. Some of the loan programs of which you should be aware are the Federal Perkins Loan, The Federal Stafford Loan (both subsidized and unsubsidized), Federal Direct Stafford/Ford Loans (both subsidized and unsubsidized). And the Federal Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (for parents).

Talk with the financial aid officer at your college or colleges of choice. Find out what their application procedure is. Do they have an institutional financial aid application? Are there deadlines? What must you do to receive financial aid in subsequent years? Will the composition of your financial aid award (percentages of grant, scholarship, loan and employment) change or will it stay the same? Do they require additional information, not required on the federal form? How will they deal with situations that pertain to your family that do not seem to be fully explained on the federal application? What happens if your family’s situation changes after you enroll.

By Edgar W. Miller, Ed. D., Director, Student Financial Aid, The University of Toledo, Ohio Key Guide to Colleges and Careers.