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Financial Aid 101: How to Get Financial Aid for College

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Financial aid can help you pay for a college education--whether it's on campus or online. It can include undergraduate and graduate scholarships, grants, work study and student loans. Financial aid is available from many different sources including the federal government, state governments, colleges and universities and private and public organizations. Some financial aid is based on financial need' while other aid is based on other qualities or skills such as academic merit, athletics or ethnicity, to name only a few.

Who is Eligible for Financial Aid?

Generally, you must be enrolled in an approved undergraduate or graduate program at an accredited college, university or vocational school. In order to receive most forms of financial aid, you must also meet the following eligibility requirements:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen
  • Be registered with the Selective Service (if you're a male between 18 and 25)
  • Be qualified to obtain a postsecondary education
  • Have a valid Social Security number

If you do not meet all of these requirements, contact your financial aid office to look for other sources of aid.

How do I Apply for Financial Aid?

Begin the process by filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA online. The best time to file the FAFSA is as soon as possible after Jan. 1 in the academic year you plan to start school. For example, file in January 2012 if you plan to attend during the 2012-13 academic year.

Once you've completed and submitted the FAFSA, you receive a Student Aid Report with an Expected Family Contribution or EFC. Schools use the EFC to determine your eligibility for federal aid as well as institutional aid at their schools. Some schools also use alternate or supplemental applications, so contact the financial aid offices of the schools you're thinking about attending to find out exactly what information they require and what their deadlines are.

Applying for aid takes a little organization on your part; it is important to make sure you don't miss any steps. It would be a shame not to receive financial aid because you missed a deadline or didn't submit all the needed paperwork.

How do Schools Determine Eligibility for Financial Aid?

Two components are used to determine your eligibility for aid:

  • Cost of attendance (COA): This is the amount it costs to attend a school. Each school has a different COA, which includes tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board and other educational expenses calculated by the school.
  • Expected family contribution (EFC): This figure is most often taken from the FAFSA report. It represents what you and your family are expected to contribute toward your educational expenses based on family income and assets.

The cost of attending a particular school minus what your family is expected to contribute equals your need for financial aid at that school. Each school to which you have submitted a financial aid application will send you a financial aid award letter, letting you know how much aid you're eligible for at their school and what type of aid you've been allowed--grants, work-study or loans, for example. Information should be included that explains how to interpret the award letter.

If you have questions, contact a counselor in the financial aid office. It's important to understand your award letters before making a final decision about where you plan to attend school and what financial aid resources will be available to help pay for your education.