College today presents a major expense for parents. At the most expensive colleges, tuition, room, and board can cost over $60,000. This has created a situation where 80% of students pursuing post-secondary school education receive some sort of aid. This aid may take a variety of forms: grants, loans, work study, and scholarships. Conversations about finances are important during the college process. Students can only make realistic choices if they understand their parents' financial situations. Honest communication between parents and students on this subject is essential.
Colleges generally expect students and their families to make some financial contribution toward college costs. This amount is usually based on the family's ability to pay, but also includes what the student can reasonably be expected to earn during the school year and through summer employment.
Need-based financial aid is available for those who qualify. A family may calculate its expected contribution using the financial aid calculator at http://www.finaid.org/calculators/finaidestimate.phtml.
Once the family's parental contribution is determined, assistance may be available in many forms.
Most financial aid packages ask students and their families to take out loans in order to pay for college. Federal loans offer lower interest rates, fixed payment schedules, and some deferment options. Private loans, obtained through commercial banks, are a less desirable option.
This is money that the government and/or colleges gives to qualified students. Grants do not need to be repaid.
Colleges make many different jobs on campus available to students. A student may be asked to take one of these jobs as part of his or her financial aid package.
Both students who qualify for need-based financial aid, and those who don't, may be eligible for non-need-based scholarships.
Many colleges award these scholarships to students with strong academic records. To determine what is available, check with individual schools.
A variety of institutions invite students to apply for scholarship money. Students should begin investigating and applying for scholarships in their junior year. Scholarship applications can be lengthy and complicated, so starting early is a good idea.
The decision about whether to apply for aid is complex. Some financial aid offices advise parents to apply, because many families are more likely to qualify than they think. On the other hand, it is worth noting that not all colleges are need-blind; in other words, they may consider a family's financial need before making an admissions decision. Our suggestion is to begin a discussion of costs early and explore a variety of financing options.
The most important form is the FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Almost every college and university in the country requires this form. The FAFSA should be completed as soon after October 1 as possible.
Private colleges and universities also often ask parents to fill out the College Board Profile form. The Profile process may need to be started even earlier than the FAFSA; check with individual institutions for deadlines.
Finally, individual institutions may have their own financial aid application forms with their own deadlines.