Is your high school student ready to enter the exciting world of postsecondary education? If so, you will want to start discussing with your child how to pay for college (or other postsecondary education tracks), at least one to two years before they are accepted. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual cost of attending a degree-granting postsecondary education program in 2019 ranged between $25,487 for a public institution and up to $53,217 for a private institution. These high figures indicate a need for parents and their teens to collaborate in thought and planning to determine the best way to pay for college.
Here are some great resources that will help you navigate financial aid information to pay for college.
Free Application for Federal Student Aid
The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the starting point to determine whether students qualify for federally guaranteed aid, including work study, Pell grants and student loans. Even if students believe they may not qualify for federal aid, it is strongly recommended they fill out the FAFSA form anyway. Students can fill out the FAFSA starting in October of their senior year in high school. They will need information about their parents, including Social Security numbers, income, a list of financial assets and their tax returns. According to Katie Burns, a college admissions counselor with New York-based educational consulting firm IvyWise, “Start early, aim to submit it by the same deadline as you are submitting your [college] applications.”
Students should contact the higher education agencies in the states where they want to attend college and ask about state-specific grants that may be available to them. This information is also available from financial aid offices at colleges.
Grants are a gift from federal and state governments; they do not need to be paid back. Grants are issued in one-year terms and may be renewable depending on availability of funds. Many state grants do not have a separate application process, as they are awarded using the same criteria found on FAFSA forms.
Like grants, scholarships are gifts that don’t have to be repaid. A wide variety of private sources offer scholarships to high school students to pay for college expenses. Students are encouraged to apply for scholarships as early as possible in their high school years. Students can even apply for scholarships in their freshman year!
As a general rule, scholarship information is freely available; however, sources that charge fees to locate scholarships for students are also available. One trusted and well-known source of scholarship information is Fastweb. This source provides category-specific information including scholarships based on proposed major or course of study, location of school, essay writing and racial and cultural classifications.
Tuition waivers are most helpful for students who wish to go to college outside of their home state. Known as nonresident tuition exemptions, tuition waivers help reduce the cost of going to college out of state by allowing students to pay in-state tuition and fees instead of the costlier out-of-state fees.
The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) manages the Academic Common Market (ACM), a program that helps students in a 15-state service area obtain in-state tuition rates for schools outside of their home states. Virginia and Maryland both are part of ACM.
Merit aid is another form of free financial aid that does not have to be repaid. It can come in the form of grants or scholarships and is not dependent on the demonstration of need. Merit aid awards are given to students who demonstrate excellence in academics, athletics, artistic endeavors and special interests.
According to Neeta Vallab, founder of MeritMore, a New York-based company that offers a free online merit aid search tool, “Merit aid are like tuition discounts to entice candidates to accept [admissions] offers. They are generously offered as renewable grants for four years and [are often] GPA-specific.”
As a parent who became frustrated when going through the financial aid research process with her own child, Vallab learned some interesting facts the hard way. Each year, colleges voluntarily provide statistical facts about its admissions and financial aid on a standard form known as the Common Data Set (CDS). That information becomes freely and publicly available, though the interpretation and extraction of relevant data becomes difficult for the average consumer.
Using her skills in computer programming, Vallab created a research tool to help students and their parents easily search for merit aid using MeritMore’s proprietary tool which culls data from the CDS of colleges and other postsecondary institutions. While it is not necessary to register on the MeritMore website to complete a search, registration offers additional benefits allowing students to enter their GPAs and access detailed information about merit aid.
Research Financial Aid as soon as Possible
Students and their parents have many options when determining how best to pay for their postsecondary education. During freshman and sophomore years, students can research scholarships and apply for them. Juniors need to make plans to assemble the paperwork and facts about their family’s financials in order to fill out the FAFSA early in their senior year. Don’t forget to check with financial aid offices for more information!
Financial Aid Resources
- Federal Student Aid, an Office of the Department of Education, studentaid.gov.
- FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), fafsa.ed.gov.
- Fastweb, fastweb.com.
- MeritMore, meritmore.com.
- The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) Academic Common Market (ACM), sreb.org/academic-common-market.
- State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), schev.edu/index/tuition-aid/financialaid/state-student-aid/financial-aid-programs.
- DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education, osse.dc.gov/dctag and osse.dc.gov/page/college-and-career-resources-students-and-families.
- Maryland Higher Education Commission, mhec.maryland.gov/preparing/pages/financialaid/descriptions.aspx.