Financial aid is a common way to fund a college education
Schools, states and the federal government are all sources of financial aid. Do your own research, but check with your school's financial aid office, too.
How financial aid works
To apply for federal financial aid, you need to fill out and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). (Other forms may be required to receive loans, grants or scholarships from individual schools and state governments.) The school then puts together your aid package based on your family's financial need.
Learn more about FAFSA form
How need is determined
The information reported on the FAFSA form is used in a formula established by the federal government to determine your expected family contribution (EFC). The EFC is an amount the family and student are expected to contribute to the student's education. The EFC is based on several factors, including the student's income (and assets if the student is independent), the parents' income and assets (if the student is dependent), the family's household size and the number of family members (excluding parents) attending postsecondary institutions.
The financial aid timetable
To apply for financial aid, you must take several steps in the months following your student's acceptance to college. Different schools have different deadlines for receiving information, so be sure to speak with a school representative to make sure you're meeting the school's specific timetable. You can expect the school will send you an award letter by April or May telling you how much aid, if any, you are being offered for the next school year.
Grants are awards based on financial need that are given with no expectation of repayment. Several grant programs are sponsored by the federal government. The best-known are Pell Grants (which are applied through FAFSA forms) and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG). Pell Grant eligibility is determined by a combination of financial need, cost of attendance, full-time or part-time status of student and whether school attendance will be for a full academic year or less. The FSEOG program is administered by participating schools and the funding to each school from the federal government is limited, so it is recommended that you check with the school's financial aid office and apply as early as possible. Eligibility is determined by financial need, application date, amount of other aid received by the student and the availability of funds at the school. FSEOG funds are limited, so not all students receive such grants. Additional grants may also be available through the Department of Education.
Need-based financial aid is money offered to you based on your financial situation. Most scholarships, on the other hand, are based on merit. Many foundations, corporations, institutions, trade associations, religious and ethnic organizations and other groups offer scholarships. These awards are based on a wide variety of qualifications, including need, academic and athletic achievement or special talents. Use the free scholarship search to find scholarships that fit your profile.
This type of federal financial aid provides qualified students with funds in exchange for performing work for the school. The federal government provides a limited amount of work-study funds to colleges, and the schools have discretion in awarding this type of aid.