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Answers to Introductory Questions about Financial Aid for College

Answers to Introductory Questions about Financial Aid for College

Get the answers to the financial aid basics.

Mark Kantrowitz

November 21, 2010

I am a high school junior and an Upward Bound scholar. I do not have any way to pay for college and I really want to attend. How do I apply for financial aid? What are the requirements? Do I have to pay for anything? What advice do you have for me if I do receive financial aid? — Alexis M.

Financial aid for college may seem complicated, with an entire language of cryptic acronyms like FAFSA, SAR and EFC, but there are only a few simple steps you need to take to apply for financial aid.

There are two main types of financial aid, merit-based aid and need-based aid. Scholarships and merit-based aid are awarded based on academic, athletic or artistic talent, or other criteria of interest to the scholarship sponsor. Need-based aid is based on financial need, the difference between college costs and your ability to pay.

To find merit-based aid, register for free at to search for scholarships that match your background. There are scholarships available for students at all grade levels, including grades K-12 and current college students, so the sooner you start searching for scholarships, the more you will find. When completing your personal background profile on Fastweb, take the time to review all of the choices in the optional questions. Students who answer the optional questions match twice as many scholarships, on average, as students who answer just the required questions. The Fastweb scholarship matching service is updated daily, and you will receive email notification when there is a new scholarship that matches your personal background profile. The Fastweb and FinAid sites are free.

To apply for need-based aid, submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, as soon as possible after January 1 of your senior year in high school. This form is used to apply for student financial aid from the federal and state government as well as for financial aid from most public and private colleges and universities. The FAFSA is submitted annually. (A Renewal FAFSA will be submitted during your freshman, sophomore and junior years in college.)

If you have questions about completing the FAFSA, there are several sources of free help. The US Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Information Center operates a toll-free hotline at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). You can ask your high school guidance counselor or the financial aid administrator at a local college for help. Several states operate a free program called College Goal Sunday that provides hands-on help with the FAFSA on weekends in January and February. Visit to see if and when it is offered in your state. There is also information and advice in the FAFSA section of FinAid and in the FAFSA articles on Fastweb.

These days almost everybody submits the FAFSA online, at If you do not have a computer, ask your high school or local public library if there’s a computer you can use. Otherwise, call 1-800-4-FED-AID and they can send you a printed version of the form. The online form is better, since it is a “smart” adaptive form that will skip unnecessary questions and detect the most common errors.

Your college may also have its own supplemental form. About 250 mostly private colleges use a form known as the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form. This form is similar to the FAFSA, but typically asks more detailed questions. You can find this form online at (Note that there is no “www” as part of this web site’s address.)

You will receive a “financial aid award letter” from the colleges after you’ve submitted the FAFSA and other financial aid forms. This letter will summarize the types and amounts of financial aid you will receive. The financial aid will include gift aid that does not need to be repaid, such as grants like the Pell Grant. It will also include self-help aid, such as loans and work-study.

The prospect of taking on debt to pay for college can be frightening, especially if you will be borrowing more money than your parents earn in a year. You should try to minimize your debt, because every dollar you spend using student loan money will cost you about two dollars by the time you’ve paid off the debt. One of the best ways of minimizing debt is to enroll at a less expensive college, such as an in-state public college. But so long as you don’t borrow excessively and you major in a field of study with good job prospects, you should be able to repay the debt after graduation.

There are also a handful of financial aid programs that are available to you when you file a federal income tax return. These include the Hope Scholarship Tax Credit, the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit and the Tuition and Fees Deduction. You should file a federal income tax return to obtain these education tax benefits even if you are not required to file a return. The Hope Scholarship, for example, is partially refundable, so you can benefit even if you have no tax liability.

After you get your financial aid package, review the requirements for keeping each source of funding. In most cases you will have to get good grades or you might lose the money. Some scholarships are renewable and may require a renewal application, academic transcripts or other requirements for you to keep the scholarship in subsequent years.

Finally, beware of scholarship scams and other financial aid scams. If you have to pay money to get money, it’s probably a scam. Never invest more than a postage stamp to get information about scholarships or to apply for a scholarship.

Can I start applying for financial aid when I am a 10th grader in high school? — Cierra B.

You will have to wait until January 1 of your senior year in high school to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). However, you can and should start searching for scholarships immediately, as there are many scholarships available to students in grades 9, 10 and 11, not just grade 12. These scholarships can be found in the Fastweb scholarships database.

If you are under age 13, you won’t be able to search the online scholarship databases because of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). However, a list of scholarships for children under age 13 can be found on FinAid at

You should also save as much as you can for your college education, because every dollar you save is a dollar less you will need to borrow. Encourage your parents to save for your college education in a section 529 college savings plan. These are tax-advantaged ways of saving for college, similar in concept to a Roth IRA and other retirement plans. Every state offers one, and you can save in any state’s 529 plan. More than 30 states offer a state income tax deduction for contributions to the state’s 529 plan. It is best to use the direct-sold version of the state’s 529 plan, as the fees are lower than in an advisor-sold plan. Choose the age-based asset allocation within the state plan to minimize the risk of stock market losses. This shifts the funds to a more conservative mix of investments as college approaches, reducing the risk of loss to principal.


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