5 steps to guide your college funding decisions

If college is part of your plan, start with this review of how to secure financial aid.

A woman walking around her college campus

Navigating the college financial aid process can be challenging, even for the savviest of students and parents. With options that include the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), private loans, scholarships, and grants, it can feel overwhelming.

These five steps will help you sort out the financial aid process so you can make a more informed decision:

Step 1: Complete the FAFSA
Regardless of income, all families should complete the FAFSA each year. Even if you think you may not qualify for aid, some merit-based scholarships or awards require you to complete the FAFSA.

Beginning October 1 of every year, you should apply for the following school year. For example, you’ll apply for federal aid for the 2021–2022 school year on October 1, 2020. You can easily apply by visiting the FAFSA website. Be sure to have the following information on hand before you apply: Social Security number, Alien Registration Number (if you’re not a U.S. citizen), federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned. (Note: You may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.)

Step 2: Estimate your total college costs
You can use The College Board’s Net Price Calculator to estimate the costs you can expect to pay at the college of your choice. Plus, you’ll learn what sources may be available to help you fund these costs. Just be prepared to answer questions about your personal history and finances (such as income and assets).

Step 3: Determine if additional funding is needed
During this step in the process, you should review four things: 1) what you have available in a college savings fund; 2) what grants have been offered to you or your child through the FASFA process; 3) whether or not a work–study program is a viable option; and 4) what scholarships are available to you or your child (merit-based, athletic, private company, and more).

To learn more about other financial aid opportunities, speak with a counselor at your child’s high school or your preferred college.

Step 4: Explore your financing options
After you’ve determined what you have available to spend on college expenses, extra funding may be required. Consider both government and private financing options, including tuition payment plans or Federal Direct PLUS loans.

Step 5: Know the financial aid deadlines
As you move through your financial aid journey, keep track of important dates and deadlines. Unfortunately, missing essential action items and dates may result in missing out on funding or other critical payment deadlines. It’s best to check with your college for school-specific information.

By following these five steps, you’ll be better prepared to make the right college funding choice for your family. If you don’t understand something or have questions, please contact a counselor at your preferred college.