There may be some political rumblings afoot about making college free for everyone, but anyone planning to go back to school in 2016 will likely still need financial aid to help cover tuition and fees. We conducted a survey of both traditional and nontraditional students to see how they plan on paying for school, and some of what we learned was pretty surprising.
Our respondents don't represent every college student enrolled today, by any means, but we took a representative cross-section and got a diverse array of responses. Check out these six takeaways from the survey and learn more about the financial aid landscape for first-time and returning students.
1) The most aid-savvy students focus on scholarships
Student loans may be the method of financial aid that gets the most press -- thanks in part, perhaps, to an aggregate national student debt that topped $1.2 trillion in 2014 -- but students who consider themselves experts in available aid options were about 50 percent more likely to plan to pay for as much of their education as possible with scholarship money.
Scholarships, as you may know, are conditional or merit-based awards that are yours to use without the need to repay, but it takes a certain amount of self-directed research and initiative to discover them and complete each individual application process. Many grants are similar, in that they take some digging and don't require repayment, and our survey found that students who reported high levels of understanding of financial aid planned to go that route as well.
2) Not everyone understands how the FAFSA works
It's repeated like a mantra to incoming first-year students, traditional and nontraditional alike: If you haven't done so already, fill out your FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, as it's known in long-form, is a veritable one-stop shop for loans, grants, and other aid packages available from federal, state, institutional, and sometimes even private sources.
One thing we learned, however, is that nearly one in four respondents with no FAFSA on file maintained that they plan to use financial aid as their primary method of paying for college. It's probably not impossible to get enough aid to cover tuition and fees without your FAFSA info available for lenders and donors, but filling one out will almost definitely save you some valuable time.
3) Your family can help in more ways than one
Some students are fortunate enough to be able to make use of family money to cover tuition and fees -- about one in six, according to our survey -- but paying for school directly isn't the only way that your close relatives can help you come up with the means to fund your degree.
Out of all our respondents, those who claimed to understand financial aid options at the expert level were also most likely to say that parents and family members should be a student's primary source of information about financial aid. If you've got parents or other relatives who have been through college, don't hesitate to ask them for tips about the financial aid landscape and how to approach it.
4) Most students still plan to work while attending college
It can be difficult to strike an agreeable balance between schoolwork and wage work while earning a degree, but nearly 78 percent of students reported that they plan to work for at least a portion of their income to help pay for school. Full-time work was far from uncommon, too; a shade more than half of survey respondents indicated that they plan to attend school while working 40 hours a week or more.
The important takeaway here is that today's students seem to be aware that mixing financial aid with wage-earning work can be a good way to limit your student debt after graduation. It may feel more like "college" to live it up on campus without a day job, but borrowing against your future to do it can come back to sting you in the long run.
5) Nontraditional students tend to focus on federal aid
A full 80 percent of nontraditional students report that they understand their aid options very well or pretty well, but they also suggested at a greater rate than any other group that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) should be responsible for providing financial aid information to students. While it makes sense to expect the federal government to be the primary source of information on federal programs, there may be some student aid options that fall outside the scope of ED jurisdiction.
A relatively small amount of legwork at your school's financial aid department can clue you in on not only federal loans and grants but also aid sources at the state, regional, and institutional levels. On top of that, the academic department where you take your major subject coursework might have info on department-specific aid that can fly under the radar of other information centers.
6) Younger students want to take ownership of their financial aid decisions
In one of the more surprising survey results, a significant plurality of traditional and first-time students replied that they feel it's their own responsibility to gather information about available financial aid. In fact, the idea that each student should take charge of his or her own financial aid information was the most common answer to the responsibility question among respondents under 25 years old.
There could be any number of reasons for this, from a general desire for autonomy to growing up with the ability to find any information at all with just a few keystrokes, but either way the younger set may be on to something. The more research you do and the better you understand the extent of what's available, the more likely it is that you'll have the resources necessary to organize an aid system that works for you both during school and after graduation.
Final thoughts on student aid
Media coverage of student loan debt can make it seem as though financial aid recipients are signing their lives away, but there's a lot more to financial aid than federal loans. Whether you're a first-time student or going back to college at 40, putting a little extra effort into your search for aid might help you turn up scholarships, grants, and other awards that can help you pay for college in a way that works for you now and in the future.
- "40 million Americans now have student loan debt," CNN Money, Blake Ellis, September 10, 2014, accessed October 27, 2015, http://money.cnn.com/2014/09/10/pf/college/student-loans/
- Data from survey conducted by partner site Schools.com
- Fast Facts, Financial Aid, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, accessed October 27, 2015, http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=31