As a student (or parent) it can be easy to focus solely on the college application process, and completely forget about financial aid. You spend so much time studying for the SATs (or ACTs) and tweaking your college essay so it perfectly represents you, that after you’ve been accepted and the reality of tuition payments set in, you might feel momentary panic.
It’s no secret that college tuition is expensive. Students and parents save for years to pay for higher education, but sometimes that’s just not enough. According to Sallie Mae’s study, “How America Pays for College in
2018 ,” just under half of college expenses were covered by family income and savings.
Many of us rely on financial aid to bridge the payment gap. There are a few different types of financial aid: scholarships, grants, work-study, and federal or private student loans. Financial aid can come from a variety of sources, depending on the type, including federal and state agencies, colleges, high schools, foundations, and corporations.
Scholarships and grants are extremely useful forms of financial aid, since students are not typically required to pay back the money they receive. According to Sallie Mae , about three in five college students received one or more scholarship or grant to pay for college during the 2018 school year.
Scholarships, grants, and savings often aren’t enough to cover the cost of attending college; many students rely on loans to pay for school. Students are borrowing loans at unprecedented rates. In 2018, 53% of
families took out student loans to pay for college.
To top it all off, the financial aid application process can be confusing. Between federal aid and other scholarships, it can be difficult to keep everything straight.
Most often, the first step in applying for financial aid is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student
Aid (FAFSA®). The deadline for federal aid each year is June 30th for the current academic year, but many schools and private lenders also use the FAFSA to determine their own aid as well. You can begin filling out the FAFSA on October 1st for the following academic year.
Taking the effort to apply for financial aid early can have a positive impact on your tuition bill. Here are some other FAFSA tips for navigating the financial aid application process to help you feel more prepared for what’s ahead.
Submitting Paperwork and Applications On-Time
Every school’s financial aid office has to follow a budget. Some financial aid is offered on a first-come, first served basis, so it helps to submit forms, like the FAFSA, and other applications, on time or even ahead of schedule.
You may be out of luck if you apply for assistance after your university’s financial aid office has met their budget for the year. Some states have early winter deadlines for awarding scholarships and grants. For example, some applications for state grants in Tennessee are due as early as January 16th.
In Connecticut, all applications for financial aid are due February 15th. You can check the deadlines for financial aid in your state through the Department of Education’s website .
Being Wary of Services that Charge You for Help
If you need assistance filling out the FAFSA, avoid any services that charge you. The first F of FAFSA stands for “Free,” so there is no need to pay for a service to fill the form out for you.
If you need assistance filling out the FAFSA, there are plentiful online resources through the Department of Education .
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Have the basics ready to go before you sit down to fill out the FAFSA. If you have all of the information you need before you begin filling out the FAFSA, you’ll likely have an easier time filling out the information.
Usually, each parent and the student will need to create a username and password, which is called the Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID). You’ll also need:
• Social Security numbers (for you and your parents )
• Bank statements and records of untaxed income (possibly)
• You and your parents’ tax returns (aid awards are based on income from two years ago)
• Any W2 forms
Filing the FAFSA Every Year
For every year you are a student and want to receive federal aid, you’ll have to file the FAFSA. Get in the habit of filing it every fall, so you’re closer to the top of the financial aid pile.
Writing a Letter
May 1st is usually decision day, when every college student must make a final decision on which college they plan to attend in the fall. But even after this deadline, students can change their minds or decide not to return to school. This phenomenon is known to industry professionals as “summer melt .”
When students decide to switch schools or not attend at the last minute, it means that they also won’t be using their financial aid award—which could now be available to other students.
You might be able to take advantage of summer melt with this secret: write a letter. After you get your financial aid offer, you could write a letter to your school’s financial aid office to open the lines of communication.
Let them know how excited you are to attend school in the fall. That’s where you could include a thoughtfully-worded inquiry for any additional aid that you might qualify for.
Calling the Financial Aid Office
Another way to potentially take advantage of “summer melt” is to call your school’s financial aid office. Instead of calling immediately after you receive your financial aid award, think about calling in June or July. This allows financial aid offices time to account for students who have declined their financial aid packages.
An appropriately timed call to the financial aid office at your school could mean additional financial aid is allocated to your package—no guarantees, of course, but it never hurts to ask.
Other Financing Options for College
Scholarships and grants can be super-helpful additions to a federal financial aid package. The money can reduce your tuition bill and doesn’t usually need to be repaid. Work-study can also be beneficial in helping college students make ends meet.
As a part of your federal financial aid package, you may have received subsidized loans, which are awarded based on need, or unsubsidized loans, which are not need-based. If your financial aid award, in addition to income or savings, isn’t enough to cover the cost of attending college, you may wish to consider additional student loans from a private lender.
If you find that federal loans and the rest of your financial aid package don’t quite cut it, take a look at SoFi’s undergraduate student loans. You can find out in just a few minutes if you pre-qualify and at what rates.
If needed, it’s easy to add a cosigner, all it takes is a few clicks. SoFi offers four repayment options for undergraduate loans so you can pick the plan that fits best into your budget and financial plan.
With the deferred plan, there are no payments until six months after you leave school. This means you won’t have to worry about making payments as you study for your classes, but it is the highest overall cost option.
The interest-only plan is just that—while you’re in school you make interest-only payments on your loans. These payments can help reduce the overall cost of the loan.
On the partial repayment plan you can pay a low monthly payment while you’re in school, which can help reduce some of the overall cost.
Finally, the immediate plan means you start payments on principal and interest right away. This plan has the highest payments while students are in school, but offers the lowest overall cost option for borrowers.
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Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See SoFi.com/eligibility for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.