The cost of a quality education is rising every year. A traditional, four-year college program can total well over $100,000 by the time graduation rolls around. If a student isn’t working or doesn’t have family financial assistance, that can be a daunting amount to try to raise. Some students try to finance all of their educational expenses through loans, and too often they end up becoming another statistic in the growing student loan crisis.
In today’s workplace, there’s no doubt you need high-quality education or training to have a career that offers longevity and financial stability. Fortunately, you have more options than choosing between crushing debt and juggling a series of stop-gap jobs that leave you struggling and exhausted. Financial aid is available to help students pay for their education, including grants for college and low-cost loans. This federal student aid can be used to pay for tuition, books, fees, and even living expenses.
Because there are so many options, students can get confused when they start the search for financial aid, which can include grants and scholarships that don’t have to be repaid, as well as loans that do have to be repaid. Most student loans are offered with a low interest rate to make them more affordable, and they do not have to be repaid until a student graduates. The dizzying array of options for all types of aid leaves many students with questions about where to find the best options, how to qualify for these programs, and how to apply.
Fortunately, financial counselors are available at colleges and universities to help students learn about all the options available, as well as how to apply and get the needed funds. Here’s a look at the top five financial aid questions that students typically ask; you may have these same questions yourself:
How Do I Apply for Financial Aid?
AJ Jimenez, a student financial aid advisor for the online region at National University, says that the top question that he and other student aid officers get, by far, is how students can apply for aid.
The first thing students must do, Jimenez says, is to fill out the FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA is a federal form that allows students to apply for grants for college, student loans, and work-study programs. Students must complete the FAFSA online, and they must provide their personal information, including details about their finances and their parents’ finances. Students should complete this form with their parents to ensure accuracy.
Jimenez says that National University asks for tax documents from students and their parents to document their financial resources. If students are independent of their parents, they will need to fill out an additional form and may need to provide other documentation. Financial counselors help students know which forms need to be completed and what documents need to be provided.
There are deadlines for completing the FAFSA and other student financial aid options, so it is important to check those deadlines each year. Your school’s student aid office will post those details online, as well as in the on-campus office. Don’t let your chance to get financial assistance fall through because of a technicality like a missed deadline!
How Much Aid Will I Get?
After students apply for aid, another one of the top financial aid questions they have is how much they will get, Jimenez says.
“We fund typically for a full academic year, which is eight courses,” he says. “How much they receive depends on their schedule,” and other factors, such as their Estimated Family Contribution, or EFC, and their own income. Students who take more courses will receive more aid, as will those who have a greater financial need.
The maximum amount that students can receive in federal student aid, Jimenez says, is $9,500 for the first year, $10,500 for the second year, and $12,500 for the third and fourth years. Students pursuing a certificate program or attending their fifth year of college can also get a maximum of $12,500 in federal aid. Graduate students can get a maximum of $20,500 per year.
Every case will be different, as financial aid is dependent on overall financial resources, including other scholarships the student may receive. Some scholarships and other aid are designed to bridge the gap between the cost of the program and the amount of federal aid received. However, many scholarships are seen as financial resources, and they can reduce your federal aid package. Talk to a financial counselor at your school to learn how any new scholarships or grants for college will impact your aid package.
What if I Just Want Free Money and Not a Loan?
Student loans are at the heart of the student debt crisis. Even a loan that carries a low interest rate and has flexible repayment options can become overwhelming when a student is borrowing tens of thousands of dollars — or even hundreds of thousands.
Fortunately, federal student aid consists of more than just loans that you have to repay. Scholarships and grants for college are also available, and these do not have to be repaid.
The Pell Grant is perhaps the most common federal grant that students can receive. The Pell Grant is only available for undergraduate students, and it is awarded based on financial need. The maximum Pell Grant available is $6,195 for the 2019-20 school year, and that amount typically rises each year to keep pace with inflation and rising tuition rates.
Not all students will receive the maximum Pell Grant unless they display extraordinary financial need. The amount of the Pell Grant that students receive is determined by their Expected Family Contribution, the cost of attendance at their college or university, whether they are attending classes full time or part time, and whether they will be attending classes for the full academic year.
Other grants are available, and your school’s financial aid office can help you find those and give you information on eligibility and applying. Thousands of scholarships are also available, and your school may offer some exclusively for its students. Always talk to a financial counselor about what’s available when you are starting your search.
When is My Financial Aid Coming In?
Once students know how much financial aid they will receive, Jimenez says that the next most common question they have is when they will get the money. At National University, Jimenez says, student financial aid is usually divided into two disbursements: One at the start of the first semester and one at the start of the second semester.
Federal student aid is sent directly to the school, which then applies it to tuition and fees first. Any money that is left over is then distributed to the student in the form of a check or as a direct deposit into their bank account. Students can then use that money to buy textbooks, pay for their living expenses, or for other expenses.
“They can also use that money to simply pay back the loan,” Jimenez says. He explains that students don’t have to use all the financial aid they receive. If they get more than they end up needing, they can use that money to pay back the loan earlier. That will save students money on interest, and it will help them pay back their loans earlier. There is no penalty for pre-paying a federal student loan.
Students can use their financial aid refund for whatever they like, as the money is their own at that point and has been determined to be needed for their expenses. However, using that money wisely will help students avoid taking on more debt for the following semester or academic year, which will help them have an easier financial start when they graduate. The trick is getting enough aid to cover expenses but not taking out so much that you are struggling with debt when the program is over.
What Other Options are Available for Financing My Education?
Federal grants and loans are among the most common forms of financial aid. However, many other options are available.
Work-study programs allow students to work part-time to earn money for their education. Typically, these jobs would pay more than what students would earn in other part-time jobs, and they can be scheduled around a student’s class schedule. The money earned in these jobs also does not impact a student’s financial aid eligibility. Students can qualify for the same amount of aid even if they made substantial earnings through their work-study.
Scholarships are also available to supplement or even replace federal student aid. There are thousands of scholarships available, some for academically gifted students and others for students who are pursuing a particular field of study. There are even scholarships for students who are of certain races, who are associated with certain groups, or who have particular talents.
Jimenez says that National University offers a number of scholarships to help students make up the money they need to complete their education. For example, the Transfer to Success Scholarship gives transfer students who qualify up to $5,000 for tuition. The Collegiate Honor Award offers up to $2,000 to transfer students who have shown academic excellence.
Military-friendly National University also offers scholarships for military personnel. The Military Tuition Scholarship awards up to $2,500 to Veterans, active duty personnel, reservists, their spouses, or their dependents. The Veterans’ Victory Scholarship awards up to $5,000 to Veterans who have financial need and who have shown academic or community achievement. Both scholarships have additional requirements.
Jimenez notes that military personnel and Veterans can use the benefits from the GI bill to cover the cost of their tuition, and they can apply for federal student loans. They can even gift their GI benefits to their spouse to pursue an education. Typically, Veterans are able to get the full cost of their tuition paid for by the GI bill, Jimenez says. Those who don’t may be able to make up the cost of attendance through one of the military scholarships offered by National University.
In addition to scholarships, Jimenez says that National University offers other student financial aid. For example, the University offers the Tuition Complete Loan, which is available for students in their first or second year of coursework. The loan provides the funds to cover the remaining cost of tuition after other student aid has been exhausted.
“It is available for those who can’t get the Parent Plus Loan or any other extra funds,” Jimenez says. At National, financial counselors will work with students to help them find the full amount of funding they need for their education.
Getting the Answers to Your Questions
Financing a college education is a big undertaking, and there are many options to help you find the money without sinking yourself into serious debt after graduation. The student debt crisis has gotten plenty of attention, and the government, educational institutions, and various agencies have all been working together to offer other ways for students to get the financing they need to pursue an education without becoming mired in debt.
With so many options available, you are likely to have a lot of questions. Jimenez says that students who have any financial aid questions should reach out to the financial counselors at National University for help.
“All questions can be answered by any one of our financial aid advisors,” he says. “We’re more than happy to answer any questions students may have.”
Jimenez adds that if the financial aid advisors don’t know the answer to a question, they will research it until they find that answer. The advisors can direct you to other resources to get the information or the financial assistance you need. You can also start by exploring the National University financial aid and resources program page for more information. Remember, you don’t have to let financial concerns derail your future educational goals!