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Throughout the college admissions process, you’ll encounter several important checkpoints. Selecting schools, applying for admission, and receiving college acceptances are all critical. But, your decision often comes down to how you will pay for it. Financial aid can help by providing scholarships, grants, work-study employment opportunities, and student loans to those who qualify. Below are essential financial aid facts every student should know, including an introduction to the FAFSA.

  1. Most financial aid requires filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
    The FAFSA is the application for federal grants, work-study, and federal loans. Colleges and most state grant programs use the FAFSA to award their financial aid. Check your school’s financial aid website to see if you need to submit additional forms. When filling out your FAFSA, note that many state grant applications require you to list an in-state school first for consideration. You can find additional resources on filing the FAFSA on our website, with articles like Need Help Paying for College? We Have Tips for Filing the FAFSA.
  2. Know and meet financial aid application deadlines
    Most schools have deadlines for submitting the FAFSA. Complete yours in time to meet the earliest deadline for the schools you’re considering, or for your state grant program if that deadline is first. If you miss deadlines, you may receive fewer grants, need more student loans, or may be offered less financial aid overall. You can find deadline information on college financial aid websites or visit the FAFSA site at studentaid.gov. Tip: Using the Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT), which automatically transfers tax information into the FAFSA form, can save you time searching for tax records and eliminate errors.
  3. Amend your information if your financial situation changes.
    The amount and type of financial aid you qualify for is based on the income information submitted on your FAFSA. If your family’s economic situation changes in such a way that your financial need increases substantially, your financial aid office needs to know. You should file an amended FAFSA and/or talk with someone in your financial aid office about the changes to see how they impact grants, scholarships, work-study, and student loans you may receive.
  4. Don’t rule out a college because you think it’s too expensive
    The intent of financial aid is to provide access and college choice for students with financial need. If you are accepted at a school and filed your FAFSA, along with other required forms timely, you will receive a financial aid award notification before you are asked to make a decision about whether you will attend. To be in the best position, apply for admission at a few schools and send your FAFSA to all.
  5. Remember to compare financial aid packages.
    If you’ve followed the steps above, you should receive financial aid packages from a few schools, if you are eligible. You can compare the amount of scholarships, grants, work-study, and loans offered at each school, and calculate your net costs at each. When determining your school costs, consider all expenses – tuition, fees, room, board, books, supplies, transportation, and personal expenses. The makeup of your financial aid package differs among schools, and the net cost may differ as well. If you need additional aid, there may be other federal and private student loans to help cover your portion of costs.

Before you accept your financial aid and make a final decision about the school you will attend, be sure to read all the information accompanying your financial aid offer. You should fully understand each program in your package, your obligations, and the renewal process for each program. If you have questions, your college financial aid office is an excellent resource.

U-fi From Nelnet is here to help support the awesome work you’re doing in the classroom with helpful tips and resources on financial aid, loans, and taking control of your financial future. We also have competitive rates on private student loans to help you achieve your educational goals.

The holidays are over and the new year brings a new semester. For many students, that means a new round of bills and education expenses. That means it’s a perfect time to evaluate your finances and make sure your budget is in the right place.

If you attended college in the fall, you may have relied on financial aid to help cover your education expenses. With a new semester about to begin, you may want to reconsider your options. Many students still owe a balance from fall semester. Meanwhile, others just realized they may need additional funding to help pay for the upcoming semester. Use this time to take stock of your financial resources and make a plan to ensure everything is covered.

Do you still owe a balance on outstanding charges from your fall semester?

You may be required to fully satisfy outstanding charges before you can complete your enrollment for the next semester. Make sure you take care of the previous balance as soon as possible. That way, you avoid any potential delays with your upcoming enrollment. If you didn’t have enough financial aid or personal resources to pay your prior semester’s bills in full, consider a private loan to help cover what you still owe.

Did you apply for financial aid either before or during the previous semester?

It’s always a good idea to apply for financial aid by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, even if you don’t think you’ll qualify. Not everyone qualifies for grants or other “free” money. But, you may qualify for federal student loans, like unsubsidized loans, which are not based on financial need. You can still complete the FAFSA, even after the school year has started. It’s free and doesn’t take much time, so it’s worthwhile to submit. That way, you’ll know you’re not missing out on any financial aid programs.

What are your education expenses going to be in the upcoming semester?

By January, you should have an idea of your direct college expenses are for the upcoming semester. These education expenses including tuition, books, housing, and other costs. Do you have financial aid that pays for everything, or do you still have a gap where additional money is needed? Make sure you look at your full semester and anticipate all of your expenses. Set a budget so you’ll know exactly what your expenses are. Make sure to keep track of what types of income or financial resources can cover those expenses. Use all the financial aid resources available to you, including federal loans, to help pay your costs of attending college. If you still find yourself in need of additional money, you can explore the possibility of a private student loan and find a solution to help cover your college expenses.

When should you apply for next school year’s financial aid?

In case you missed it, you can now complete the FAFSA starting on October 1 for the following school year. You may only be halfway through the 2018-2019 school year, but it’s already time to submit your FAFSA for the 2019-2020 year. If you haven’t completed the FAFSA for next year, it’s important to get that taken care of as soon as possible. With the earlier submission date for the FAFSA, it’s critical to get your application in as quickly as possible so you don’t miss any priority deadlines for state grant aid or other types of aid that may not be available if you apply too late.

Remember, now is the time to make sure you have everything in order for the current semester and for the next school year.

At some point, most of us say, I wish I knew then what I know now. That same sentiment holds true for some college students regarding the financial aid process. After learning about the financial aid process, some students look back and wish they made different decisions.  Being better informed from the start changes how students approach their financial aid and funding options.

Here are five things students wish they knew about the financial aid process while planning for college.

1. It’s Never Too Early to Start Planning and Saving for College

College-bound students and their families often wait to think about the admissions process and financial aid options. Many times, they wait until the student’s junior or senior year of high school. However, students should research schools and possible career options early. Getting started in high school or junior high gives them an idea of which schools are the best fit. Heather, a junior in college, said she drastically underestimated all the costs associated with her education. She didn’t know she needed to rely on student loans as much as she did. Even if you expect a scholarship, keep in mind the total costs you and your family may incur. These costs can have an impact on your long-term planning and financing.

2. Know Your Deadlines and Don’t Miss Them

Braxton is in his freshman year and says he missed out on some state grant money because he waited too long to complete his FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). He said if he’d been more aware of his state deadline, he would have applied sooner and likely received money from his state grant program. He also said there were some scholarships that had very early deadlines that he missed. It takes some organization and research to be sure you know all the relevant deadlines for various scholarship and grant programs.

3. You Don’t Have to Figure It All Out on Your Own

The financial aid process can often be confusing to first-time students. Rather than trying to do it all on your own, you can find help. Your high school counselors are great resources. If you have a college or university nearby, they may offer free FAFSA workshops or presentations. They can also help you understand the financial aid process better. If you speak with your high school counselor or someone from a financial aid office, don’t be afraid to ask questions so you’ll be certain you know what you need to do. Although you’ll be doing your first FAFSA as early as October of your senior year, it’s never too early to begin learning everything you need to know. Federal Student Aid at the U.S. Department of Education has a FAFSA4caster that you can use to understand your options for paying for college.

4. You Don’t Have to Accept the Full Loan Amount on Your Award Letter

Once your financial aid application is finalized, your financial aid office sends you an award letter. Your award letter may show different types of financial aid, such as scholarships, grants, and student loans. Colleges usually provide award packages to cover your entire cost of attendance (COA). Your COA includes tuition, books, supplies, housing, etc. However, only borrow what you need, even if you were offered a higher amount. You don’t need to accept the full amount awarded.

Another college student said she assumed she should take the amount offered. At first, she thought the extra money could be a cushion if needed. She admitted she spent frivolously on things she really didn’t need. She forgot her loan was unsubsidized. That means interest accrued on her loan while she was in school. Student loans are a great resource to help pay for school as long as you understand the terms and conditions and only borrow what you need.

5. Don’t Assume You Won’t Qualify for Financial Aid and Skip Completing the FAFSA

Some students and families believe that their income may be too high to qualify for any type of financial aid and simply do not complete the FAFSA. Although you may not qualify for grants, you still need to complete the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for student loans and college work study. Some programs (such as unsubsidized student loans) are not need-based and do not have an income limitation. Also, the FAFSA is free to complete, and you could qualify for some other types of aid. One thing families forget is that if they happen to have a higher income, they may also have multiple children attending college, which is a big factor in determining financial aid eligibility. Factors such as your family income, household size, and the number in your family attending college all help determine your financial aid eligibility.

By planning ahead and thinking about the cost of college early, many of these common scenarios can be avoided. By starting your planning early, you can avoid the “I wish I knew then what I know now” feeling down the road.

You’re in college and on your own, but you may still experience the occasional financial pitfall. Below are money mistakes many students make, and some tips on how to avoid them.

Financial Pitfall #1: Spending all your living expense money early in the semester.

You’ve probably set aside spending money for personal expenses if you live off campus. Or, you may have financial aid funds to use for room, board, or other educational expenses. That money needs to last through the entire semester, but many students spend it within the first few months. How can you avoid spending your money too early? Use a budgeting app like Mint to help you keep track of your available money and expenses.

Financial Pitfall #2: Not taking advantage of part-time employment opportunities.

Most schools offer part-time employment options for students through Federal Work-Study, and by posting on- and off-campus jobs. You might worry that a job will conflict with academic work, but studies show that students who work between 15 and 20 hours while in school are generally more confident and successful. Having a job helps bring in money regularly throughout the semester and can help build your resume. Your college financial aid office awards Federal Work-Study and generally posts related job opportunities. Work-Study is based on financial need and requires a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) . Other part-time jobs may be posted by the Career Office, Student Affairs, or other places on campus. Check your school website for more information.

Financial Pitfall #3: Accumulating credit card debt.

You’ve probably already received credit card offers in the mail. You may also notice giveaways and travel rewards that make the offers sound appealing. Be careful – as a new credit card holder, your interest rates will be high, and credit card offers tend to have many fees attached. Be sure to read the fine print and note that the initial low interest rate offered may expire in just a few months. You can quickly accumulate credit card balances that can swell out of control, especially if you’re only making minimum payments. Here’s an overview of credit card pros and cons, along with additional information about other matters to consider.

Financial Pitfall #4: Taking out student loans without understanding them.

Student loans are so common that students often see them as just another type of financial aid. There is an important difference; student loans must be paid back. While student loans can be a useful way to pay for your education, keep your borrowing to a minimum. Know what your monthly loan payment will be when you get out of school. Understand what you can realistically afford to borrow. It is also important to know the types of loans, the terms of those loans, and the options available. To get a general idea of what your monthly loan payment may be when you finish school, Federal Student Aid provides an easy-to-use repayment calculator.

The earlier you can learn the basics about managing your finances, the better off you’ll be in the long run. These simple steps should help you build the foundation you need for a successful financial future.

Most students need to borrow money to cover the cost of their college education. It’s important to understand the borrowing options available. If you completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and received an award letter from your college financial aid office, you’ll likely have the option to borrow through the federal loan program called the Direct Loan Program, or simply known as Direct Loans. In the Direct Loan Program, you can borrow through the Direct Subsidized Loan or the Direct Unsubsidized Loan programs. Graduate students and parents of dependent students can also borrow in the Direct PLUS Loan program. These are all federal loan programs as opposed to private, and are generally your first option.

Direct Loans

If you’re an undergraduate student, you’ll want to explore Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans first. A subsidized loan simply means that you do not incur any interest charges while you’re in school. You can receive a Direct Subsidized Loan if you have financial need as determined by the results of your FAFSA. A Direct Unsubsidized Loan may also be available to you. As you might guess, the unsubsidized loan means that you are responsible for interest that accrues on the loan while you are in school.

Private Loans

After you’ve exhausted your federal loan options, you may still have outstanding expenses at your college. That’s when you might seek additional funding options in the form of a private loan. While your college financial aid office will instruct you on how to apply for federal loans, you’ll need to determine which private loan lender you want to use. Some schools may provide you with a list of private loan providers for you to evaluate and select. Other schools may simply direct you to find a private loan provider on your own.

Federal vs. Private

A few years ago, there were significant differences in federal loans and private loans. Now, the programs have many similarities and offer unique benefits. The chart below outlines some key factors in the federal and private loan programs.

Ufi-Loan-Type-Comparison

As you can see from the chart, there are a lot of similarities in both programs. Trying to decide between the two? Here are some important factors to consider:

  • If you’re an undergraduate student, in most cases you will have a more favorable interest rate and loan terms with a federal loan. If you think you’ll be entering any type of career that might qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, you will want to stay with federal loans when possible. Private loans do not typically offer any type of forgiveness for public service.
  • Federal loans typically provide a greater array of repayment options, including income-driven repayment plans. Most private loan providers do not offer repayment plans tied to your income.
  • If you can afford to make a higher monthly payment over a shorter repayment period, you may find a lower interest rate with a private loan.
  • Many borrowers, especially undergraduate students, find it necessary to use a cosigner for their private student loans. Learn more about the benefits of having a cosigners here.

Complete the FAFSA

Regardless of what type of funding you’re considering, you will generally still want to complete the FAFSA to take advantage of all the financial aid opportunities available to you before borrowing any type of loan. Check out your federal loan options first and then turn to private loans only when necessary to cover additional school costs. Do your research to get a full understanding to know your options and be an informed consumer. If you do consider private loan options, not all private loans or lenders are the same. You may find significant differences between private loan providers, so find one that best fits your needs and circumstances.

Financial aid is awarded in many forms, and as a student, it is important to know all of your options before deciding which awards to accept. You’ll want to compare the aid and calculate the remaining costs of all the schools you are considering. Eligible students may receive an award letter or a financial aid package.

The Financial Aid Process

Submitting your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an important first step to ensure your financial aid eligibility is considered. Your program must first accept you for admission, you must complete your FAFSA, and submit any other information your school requires. To be in the best position, complete all steps on or before each school’s published deadlines. When schools receive your FAFSA information, they calculate your family’s Estimated Financial Contribution (EFC). Your family’s actual financial contribution and the composition of your award letter may differ among schools. Your EFC is deducted from the total Cost of Attendance (COA) to determine your financial need. If you are eligible for financial aid, your award letter will contain all of the aid programs you are eligible to receive, the steps you need to take, and the deadlines for responding to the award letter.

Note: Although you will see your EFC on the Student Aid Report you received after filing the FAFSA, it is probably not the amount you and your family will actually pay for college. For more information, review the article I Submitted My FAFSA – Is the Expected Family Contribution What I Have to Pay for College? When you review your award letter, read all information, understand each program, and know your obligations to ensure you receive the funds. You will need to select the awards you would like to accept and respond to your award letter by the date indicated.

Types of Financial Aid

There are several different types of financial aid including grants, scholarships, federal work-study, and loans. The terms of each type of aid vary, so it is important to understand the differences.

Grants are typically based on financial need and do not need to be repaid. They may include funds from federal, state, and institutional sources. Programs apply grants to your college bill.

Scholarships are based on academics or other performance criteria, financial need, or a combination of both and do not have to be repaid. Scholarships usually come from institutional or private sources who apply funds to your college bill.

Federal work-study may be listed on your award letter, but in order to receive the funds, you must obtain a qualifying job and work to earn this type of financial aid from federal and institutional sources. Your financial aid office will post eligible jobs that are open to qualifying students. Once you secure a job, you’ll receive paychecks throughout the year for your hours worked. Work study does not apply funds to your college bill.

Loans are funds you borrow now and pay back with interest after you finish or leave school. They may come from federal, institutional, or private sources. For most loans, you will be required to take additional steps to secure the funds. If you receive a loan, it is applied to your bill. Many loans also charge fees, which are deducted from your loan amount. Be sure to read all of the loan terms before you borrow.

Determining the Amount You Owe After Financial Aid

Remember, colleges bill you for some costs prior to the start of each semester. The bill typically includes tuition and fees plus room and board charges if you live on campus. You will also have additional expenses such as books, transportation, and personal expenses that will not be included in your bill. Schools factor in all of this criteria when determining your overall cost of education. Your award letter outlines the total for each type of expense.

To determine the amount you will pay at each school, first deduct your grants and scholarships, then loans (minus fees) from your estimated college bill. Your school evenly divides and credits most aid to each semester’s bill.

You will also need to consider the cost of books and supplies at the beginning each semester, and any personal and transportation expenses you may have throughout each semester. If you have financial aid left after your school applies funds to your bill, you can use it to help with these expenses. Obtaining a work-study job can also help with personal expenses. As a general rule, it’s best to have additional funds set aside to help with personal expenses as well.

To continue to receive aid, you will need to make satisfactory academic progress toward your degree. Scholarships may require that you achieve a certain grade point average or meet other performance criteria. Programs also include renewal information with your award letter.

Additional Funds to Help Cover College Costs

In addition to the financial aid listed above, there are alternate sources that can help cover the cost of college.

Private Scholarships

There are a number of private scholarships available, which you can search for with Peterson’s College Scholarship Search. Your guidance counselor can also be a great resource for private scholarship information. Private scholarships can help offset the amount you need to borrow.

Direct PLUS Loans

These are federal loans that some schools may include in an award letter. Direct PLUS Loans are subject to certain eligibility requirements. Typically graduate or professional degree students or parents of a dependent undergraduate student are eligible to receive these loans.

Private Loans

As an alternative, private loans can also assist with covering college expenses. Private student loans, sometimes known as alternative loans, are made by private lenders such as banks, credit unions, and financial institutions. Private student loans are based on credit and are most often used to fill the gap between the cost of attending college and family savings, grants, scholarships, and federal student loans.

Paying for school can feel like an overwhelming process. It’s crucial to meet all of your deadlines to be considered for eligibility. Mapping out your deadlines on a calendar can help keep these details organized. Make sure you consult the available resources and fully understand each step of the process to get the most out of financial aid.

While preparing for college, one of the most important considerations is how to pay for it. All students should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) because it is used to determine students’ potential eligibility for various financial aid programs, as well as various state and institutional-based aid programs. All of this is based on a variety of factors, including your Expected Family Contribution.

Expected Family Contribution

When completing the FAFSA, you’ll need to provide certain information. You need to detail your (and possibly your parents’) income, family size, and number of family members attending college. The FAFSA uses all of the information you provide to determine a figure known as the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Don’t be alarmed if your calculated EFC is high. Colleges use your EFC college financial aid offices to determine the amount of financial aid you are eligible to receive.

Cost of Attendance

Each college sets a figure known as the Cost of Attendance. Direct costs such as tuition, fees, books, as well as room and board make up the Cost of Attendance. It also includes other indirect costs such as transportation and other personal expenses. Colleges and universities have varying Costs of Attendance, but your EFC remains the same, regardless of where you go.

Determining Eligibility

Financial aid offices use the formula below to establish your financial need. This determines if you qualify for grants and other financial aid programs.

Cost of Attendance – Expected Family Contribution = Financial Need

The lower your EFC, the greater the likelihood that you’ll qualify for need-based financial aid.

Remember that your EFC stays the same no matter what school you attend. The name Expected Family Contribution might sound like you have to directly contribute or pay that amount. But, it’s just a part of the formula that determines your financial aid eligibility. There are other financial aid sources that can be used to fully fund your college education such as unsubsidized Direct LoansPLUS loans, private loans, and other aid programs not based on financial need. It’s best to exhaust all sources of grants and scholarships before borrowing for college. You can use a free search at Peterson’s to find available scholarship opportunities. You can also visit the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid website to learn more about the EFC, FAFSA, and other financial aid programs.