How Does Someone Apply For Financial Aid?

Financial aid is money awarded to student applicants to help them pay for college tuition and other expenses that may accrue during postsecondary schooling. There are various types of financial aid available, depending on a student's qualifications.

Students who need to apply for financial aid must fill out the FAFSA, which is used by the federal government to determine loan eligibility, as well as by colleges offering school-based financial aid.

How to Apply for Financial Aid

Financial aid is available in the form of student loans, scholarships, grants, work-study and other awards. Financial aid is often separated into merit-based and need-based categories, which reflect students' academic achievements and monetary situations, respectively. The first step to applying for financial aid typically involves filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Filling Out the FAFSA

The FAFSA is used by virtually all 2- and 4-year schools in the United States, so all students are encouraged to apply, even if they do not believe they will receive aid. The minimum eligibility requirements are:

  • Holding a high school diploma or GED
  • Being enrolled in an eligible postsecondary educational program
  • Being registered for the Selective Service (males age 18 to 25)
  • Having a valid Social Security number, or demonstrate permanent residency status

Students can apply for federal and state financial aid as early as January 1 for the following summer or fall, but exact deadlines may vary according to state. The FAFSA asks for lots of information, including student demographic and financial information, as well as parent financial information.

To get ready to fill out the FAFSA, students should assemble the following documents for themselves and for their parents:

  • Social Security number or Alien Registration number
  • Tax documents
  • Documentation of current financial assets
  • Records of untaxed income

Federal Student Loans

The federal government offers a variety of loans, including the following:

  • William D. Ford Federal Direct Loans, which include:
    • Direct subsidized loans
    • Direct unsubsidized loans
    • Direct PLUS loans
    • Direct consolidation loans
  • Federal Stafford Loans
  • Federal Perkins Loans

Student Loan Amounts

Although only a processed FAFSA application provides a true assessment of financial aid eligibility, the DOE offers an online calculation tool that students can use to get a rough estimate. Ultimately, the information on the FAFSA is used to calculate the student's financial need which is based on the difference between the expected family contribution and the cost of attendance at the student's school. For instance, a private liberal arts school is often much more expensive than a public state school or community college.

Assistance from the College

School-based financial aid options can include:

  • Need-based grants
  • Merit scholarships
  • Work-study programs
  • School-based loans

Students may also seek to work with their school's financial aid administration to determine how much financial aid they may receive. For example, an administrator can help the student change his or her status from dependent to independent if he or she is not receiving any family money; as a result, the student can receive more deferrals and grant money for school. Students might also want to research independent scholarship opportunities offered by the school and affiliated organizations.

By filling out the FAFSA and submitting it to the government and to their school, students can apply for a variety of financial aid resources, including scholarships, loans and grants.

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