Navigating the college financial aid process can be tricky even for the savviest of students and parents. There’s a lot to learn, including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), private loans, room and board fees, and more. The following five steps may help you better understand the financial aid process and gain access to information on the funds you need to help pay for college.
Step 1: Complete the FAFSA
Regardless of income, all families should complete the FAFSA annually because all federal financial aid and most state and institutional aid require the FAFSA. Go to fafsa.ed.gov anytime after January 1 to apply for the upcoming academic year. Even if you think you may not qualify for aid, some merit-based scholarships or awards require you to complete the FAFSA.
Step 2: Estimate your total college costs
Use The College Board’s Net Price Calculator to estimate costs. You can search for the school of your choice and fill in your information to estimate the total costs for specific schools based on your family’s financial situation. This can also help you understand what types of funding resources may be available.
Step 3: Determine if additional funding is needed
Consider what money you have saved for college expenses and review all of the financial award letters to start determining if you have a shortfall. While it may be tempting for parents to dip into retirement savings, this is generally considered an unattractive option, because while there are programs to help fund a college education, those programs don’t exist to help fund your retirement.
Step 4: Explore your financing options
If extra funding is needed to cover remaining education costs, there are government and private financing options available, including tuition payment plans, Federal Direct PLUS Loans, and private (or alternative) loans.
Step 5: Know the financial aid deadlines
As you move through the financial aid journey, it’s important to know what to do and when to do it. Parents and students should always communicate to understand who is taking responsibility for specific deadlines. Missing key action items and dates can result in missing out on funding, so make a calendar and create a checklist of the important things to keep track of throughout the year. Learn state and federal deadlines through the FAFSA website, then check with your college for school-specific deadlines.