By now the pomp and circumstance of high school and college graduations is over. Those students celebrated their achievements, and are ready to tackle a new phase in their lives. Now another student level moves up the education ladder to become the next class of high school seniors. Congratulations are certainly in order for the progress you have made so far, but you and your parents still have a lot of work to complete over the summer and into the fall as you begin the march toward your own graduation.
As you start to work your way through the college application process, one thing you will realize very quickly is that college costs a lot of money! On first glance, you might be shocked to see how much it costs to cover tuition, room and board, books, lab fees and other expenses. And that doesn’t really include your regular expenses like travel between campus and home, cell phone and data plans, personal expenses, and a little bit of entertainment. You might start to hyperventilate because you think you just don’t have enough money in the bank to cover all of this – but take a deep breath and calm down, because now is the time when you need to start learning about the exciting world of financial aid.
Financial aid is money that is made available through a number of different resources that will help you find a way to pay for college. Some of this aid comes from the federal government, some from your state, and some from the college you will be attending. There are also a number of private and corporate resources that make money available to aspiring college students who meet certain qualifications. As you start working your way through the college selection process, you will need to learn these terms so you will understand their impact on your own financial situation:
• Grant: A grant is a block of money that is given to a student for the purpose of obtaining a higher education. Most grants are need-based and do not have to be repaid unless the student fails to meet certain criteria, such as not completing a semester. Grants can come from a variety of sources, but the most well-known of these is probably the Pell Grant from the federal government. These grants are made available through participating colleges to students with financial need. Other federal grants include Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants, and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.
• Scholarship: Similar to a grant, a scholarship is an amount of money that does not normally have to be repaid as long as the student continues to meet certain criteria. The difference here is that a scholarship is usually merit-based, although a few are awarded by businesses on a random basis. Start doing your scholarship research early in the junior to senior years of high school, and continue on through college.
• Loan: Loans refer to money that is borrowed and will need to be repaid. The most well-known of these are federal student loans, but many banks and financial institutions also make private student loans available. Be very sure to carefully compare loan details, and don’t borrow more than you really need. Too many families borrow the maximum available amount, which can create financial turmoil for the student and his/her parents after graduation.
• Work-Study: The Federal Work-Study program allows students to work for a certain period of time to earn money towards college expenses. Not all colleges participate in this program.
Once every form of financial aid is taken into consideration, families often learn that the cost of a college education is actually within their monetary capabilities. While some colleges might still be out of financial reach, it is usually possible to find a quality school that meets the family’s budget. Be aware that every form of financial aid comes with some type of deadline. The first step in the financial aid application process is to file the FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1.