Student financial aid is available from a wide range of sources. You may be able to cover most of your school costs by combining several different sources of funding. Money for college is offered in three primary forms:
• Grant: a gift of money that does not have to be repaid, usually awarded on financial need
• Scholarship: a gift of money that does not have to be repaid, usually awarded on merit
• Loan: a sum of money that has to be repaid with interest, just like a car loan, equity loan, or mortgage.
Federal Aid and the FAFSA
When you’re looking for money to pay for college, the student aid program from the U.S. government should be your very first stop. The federal government offers student loans via accredited schools that participate in one of two federal loan programs, bank-based loans and Department of Education direct loans. The federal government also has grants, scholarships, and a work-study program. Always apply for federal financial aid and use up every last penny you’re eligible for before taking out a private loan.
Federal financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. The first step is to submit the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Submitting a FAFSA is an opportunity for free or low-interest money that should not be missed. Don’t assume you won’t qualify; far more students are eligible than you’d think. Nevertheless, nearly half the college students who could get federal financial aid never even apply. That may mean more money for you… if you take the time to fill out the FAFSA. The FAFSA must be submitted each year that you’re in school, but it will go much more quickly after your first submission and can be filled out online.
State Financial Aid
State governments also provide financial aid for college, with eligibility typically based on your FAFSA. Every state has a different programs and policies, and will probably include grants and scholarships as well as student loans. State financial aid application deadlines are usually much earlier than the federal deadline of June 30, so submit your FAFSA as soon after January 1 that you can.
Privately-sourced Financial Aid
Banks and financial institutions are the most familiar source of private financial aid, in the form of private student loans. Generally, private loans are not as advantageous to students as federal loans, so you should do plenty of comparison-shopping when it comes to interest rates and loan terms and conditions.
Private grants and scholarships are also available from community organizations, religious organizations, charities, other non-profit organizations, and professional and trade associations. Check with your church, city council, or community service organization to see if they offer any funding to students who have volunteered community service hours. Even a small grant can be a big help, especially in combination with other financial aid. Two hundred dollars will pay for at least some of your books, especially if you buy them online.