Education is the best way to increase your employment opportunities and your earning potential, and for many people, learning is a worthwhile goal in its own right. The bad news is that the cost of higher education is steadily increasing. The good news is that college can be affordable; financial assistance is available from several sources.
- Plan for deadlines. Each college or university, scholarship, grant, or loan that you apply for will have its own application deadline. As soon as you decide when you would like to begin classes, find out what the application deadlines are for that term for each scholarship, loan, or grant that you plan to apply for. Make a list, and make yourself a schedule. Earlier is better, both because it will reduce your stress in the long run and because for some items, an earlier application may increase your chances of getting the funding you need. You will want to give each application your full effort, so be sure not to get stuck rushing to finish several applications in time for an impending deadline. Plan ahead.
- Understand the system. There are many kinds of financial assistance, and it is important to understand what you are applying for and how it works. Loans have to be repaid, and although student loans generally have lower interest rates than other kinds of loans, you should be aware of the interest rate when deciding whether to accept student loans. Scholarships and grants do not have to be repaid. Some may be merit-based, meaning that it will be awarded to the applicants with the strongest combination of grades, resume, and personal essays (each award will have its own criteria). Others may be need-based, meaning the award will go to the candidates whose financial circumstances show that they most need financial aid to pay for college costs. Be sure you understand what kind of award you are applying for.
Federal Financial Aid
Your first step should be www.fafsa.ed.gov, where you can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is your application for federal programs such as Stafford Loans (which have to be paid back), Pell Grants (which do not have to be paid back), and others. Additionally, your college will probably require you to have a current FAFSA on record before you will be eligible for any financial assistance from the school; many private scholarship and grant programs will require a FAFSA, too.
Nearly all colleges or universities will offers scholarships and other forms of financial assistance to their students. In most cases, you can apply for these funding opportunities as part of the process of applying to the school; some others may have a separate application. Speak with an adviser at your college for information on what types of financial aid the school offers and how to apply.
College or University Scholarships
The majority of scholarships offered by colleges or universities are probably for traditional freshman- students beginning college right out of high school and attending classes on-campus (rather than online) full-time. If you already have some college credit, you are considered a transfer student (you are technically transferring from the last place you took classes, even if that was years ago). If you have no credit but are attending part-time or taking your classes online, you still may not be elible for traditional freshman scholarships. If you are applying for an online degree program and/or if you already have college credit when you apply, be persistent and thorough in your search, because most schools and some specific degree programs will offer some form of financial aid for online and/or transfer students- you just have to be determined enough to find it.
A wide range of private companies, associations, and foundations offer scholarships. Some scholarships may be available to everyone; others may be for students of a specific school or in a certain major. Some may be based on your gender, ethnicity, or economic background, while others may be based on membership in a club, organization, or honor society. Still others are only for spouses of military service members. If you are doing your scholarship research online, be mindful of potential scams as you would elsewhere on the internet. The only thing you should have to pay for in this process is your college application itself, and you should never have to pay for access to a list or database of scholarships. The College Board (the same organization which administers the SAT test) features a scholarship search database on its website, and Military OneSource has compiled a long list of financial assistance resources.
Resources for Military Family Members
Many programs exist specifically to help service members and their families pay for school; Part 2 of this article will give you an overview of those resources with links to applications and more detailed information.