The Financial Aid Process


When it comes to financial aid, the first question most students and parents ask is “Where do I begin?”

The best place to begin your search is the high school guidance office. Many guidance offices have access to computerized college search programs that provide comprehensive information about colleges nationwide, including the availability of financial aid programs, the number of students who receive financial aid, the average amount awarded, and the total annual amount available for the entire student body. If your school uses one of these online programs, be sure to attend any orientation sessions or tutorials to ensure that you get the most out of your search.

Your guidance office will also have many reference books listing various scholarships, grants, and financial aid programs at the national, state, and local levels. Your local public library also has these publications, usually in a special “Education and Careers” section or in the “Young Adult” section.

Many high schools host a Financial Aid Night featuring financial aid advisors from colleges, lending institutions or the guidance department of the high school. Be sure to attend this event with your parents and to read through the materials you will receive.

Next, you might contact the colleges to which you expect to apply. In addition to providing information about their own financial aid programs, they may be able to help you with other sources of aid and perhaps help you to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In many cases, smaller colleges are in a better position to help you with this than many larger universities.

Be Thorough and Careful

The financial aid process requires hard work and persistence. The applications can be complex and confusing. They may be returned to you for clarification or additional information. Oftentimes, follow-up on your aid application may be necessary. For this reason, be sure to make copies of all of the applications and documents you submit, including the date submitted, as you may need them for reference.

Don’t be afraid to call the college financial aid office or state scholarship or grant office to find out the status of your application. Millions of financial aid applications are filed each year, increasing the possibility that mistakes will be made and items will be overlooked. It is your responsibility to make sure this does not happen to you.

Finally, be sure to file your application as soon as possible.

Students and parents with questions about federal financial aid programs, application procedures, eligibility formulas or any other concerns about financing higher education can call the information hotline, 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or visit the Web site StudentAid.ed.gov.

A Word of Warning

The official FAFSA is at fafsa.ed.gov – not at a .com Web site. There is no fee to submit the FAFSA. Any site with a .com address will probably charge you a fee to complete and submit the application. You are advised not to use those sites. You can get live help completing the FAFSA at fafsa.ed.gov or by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or (319) 337-5665.

Also, there is no Department of Education (ED) program that replaces loans with grants, nor is there a fee to obtain ED administered grants. Do not provide personal or financial information to unsolicited callers. To report suspected fraud, contact the Federal Trade Commission, (222) 326-2222 or visit consumer.ftc.gov.

Sources of Financial Aid

The vast majority of students attending college with the help of financial aid receive this aid from one or more of these three sources:

  1. Colleges, universities and other postsecondary institutions. Most have scholarships, grants, loans and work-study opportunities to help their students pay for their education.

  2. The Federal Government. The U.S. Department of Education (ed.gov), administers programs that provide more than $120 billion annually in grants, loans and work-study assistance.

  3. State Governments. All 50 states and the District of Columbia fund or administer student aid programs including scholarships, grants or loans.

Beyond these primary sources, various groups such as the Elks, the Knights of Columbus, other service organizations, local governments, and private companies often award scholarships to college-bound students.

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