College Financial Aid: Getting Your Fair Share

The cost of college continues to rise -- according to the Institute of Education Sciences, the average price of a public four-year postsecondary education (including room and board) rose from $14,020 to $19,339 between 1999 and 2012. But thankfully, financial aid keeps increasing right along with it. According to the College Board, undergraduate students received approximately $191.8 billion in financial aid during the 2011-12 academic year, which was an average of $13,213 per full-time equivalent student. Those figures represent a 272 percent increase from the 2001-02 academic year, when undergraduate students received a total of approximately $70.4 billion in financial aid.

If you're a prospective student or currently enrolled in college, are you receiving your fair share of financial aid?

Types of Financial Aid

Those who qualify may be able to receive college financial aid from a variety of sources, such as federal and state governments, individual colleges and universities, and private and public entities. Types of aid include:

  • Scholarships, Grants, & Graduate Fellowships - Free money you don't have to repay as long as you continue to meet the award requirements.
  • Work-Study & Graduate Assistantships - You are paid a salary to work.
  • Loans - Money that you borrow and need to repay -- at a potentially low interest rate.

There are also various other aid programs including military benefits, tuition payment or reimbursement, and loan forgiveness, to name a few. Student Aid on the Web, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, is a good financial aid resource.

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Who is Eligible for College Financial Aid?

Most college financial aid is targeted to students who:

  • Are eligible to receive a postsecondary education
  • Are U.S. citizens or eligible non-citizens with a valid Social Security number
  • Are working toward a degree or certificate in an eligible program
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress
  • Register with the Selective Service, if required (males)

How Do You Apply for College Financial Aid?

Some aid programs require special applications but for most programs, the application process begins with completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online or on paper. Although this is an application for federal aid, most states and schools also use the information from the FAFSA to award their own aid.

During the 2012 fiscal year, Federal Student Aid, an office of the U.S. Department of Education, processed roughly 22 million applications, awarding approximately $141.9 billion to more than 15 million students according its annual performance report. The FAFSA website takes you through the application process step-by-step. It helps you determine your dependency status and which personal documents you need to help you complete the FAFSA. You can download a worksheet, check the status of your completed FAFSA, make corrections, and view and print your results.

When you complete the FAFSA, you are given the opportunity to designate which schools you want to receive the information. However, you should also contact the financial aid office for each school that you're interested in. They may have additional requirements you need to meet and additional documentation you need to submit to receive aid at their school. If you don't complete each application at each school by each school's deadline, you may lose out on some aid for which you might otherwise be eligible.

Deadlines for Completing the FAFSA

You can begin the aid application process on January 1 prior to the academic year you plan to attend. For example, to receive aid for any part of the 2013-14 academic year, complete the FAFSA anytime between January 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014. Keep in mind that some schools and states award the bulk of their aid in the spring prior to the beginning of the following academic year, so if you delay completing your aid application you could be ineligible for some types of financial aid. Apply early!

After you've submitted the FAFSA, you are sent a Student Aid Report (SAR), which includes an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Carefully check the SAR and correct any errors because the EFC, which is an indication of your family's financial strength, is used by each school to determine your eligibility for federal and college financial aid at that school. Most states also use SAR information to determine your eligibility for state aid.

Determining Your College Financial Aid

Once you've completed your college financial aid applications at each school, each school awarding aid sends an offer of financial aid. Each offer includes the Cost of Attendance (COA) for that school and the types and amounts of financial aid they will offer to meet your need. In most cases, the EFC will be the same -- the COA, need and aid will be different.

Comparing financial aid offers from different schools can be tricky. The school that offers the most aid may not always be the best deal -- it may have a higher COA or offer higher interest rates. The College Board has a tool that allows you to compare aid awards from different schools.

Can Students Receive Financial Aid for Online Colleges?

Many students who attend online colleges think they aren't eligible for financial aid. Generally, as long as you meet the financial aid eligibility requirements mentioned earlier in this article, you're also eligible to receive online college financial aid -- using the same application and award process. Some online colleges do not have institutional aid programs, so you might only be eligible for federal and state financial aid. Contact the financial aid office at your online college for specific information.

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Financial Aid for Online Students in the Military

In March 2013, the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines announced that they were suspending their Tuition Assistance program, which provided up to $4,500 per academic year for service members to continue their education. Less than two weeks later, Congress voted to protect the program, which serves more than 200,000 active-duty service members and provides approximately $700 million in assistance annually.

A variety of postsecondary education benefits may be available to active-duty service members, veterans, and reserve service members. Benefits can include:

  • Montgomery GI Bill & Post-9/11 GI Bill
  • Veterans Assistance Programs
  • DANTES Program, which allows service members to earn college credits by taking exams

Some benefits may even be available to spouses and family members.

Paying for Your Education

Whether you're getting your education online or on campus or a combination of the two, you may be eligible to receive financial aid. It's free to apply. What have you got to lose but your financial stress?

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