The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is required to be eligible for most financial aid. The FAFSA must be completed each year. Students can now submit the FAFSA as early as October.
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Think about the total cost. Parents and students are focused on their first year, but they need to know that the national average for a "four-year degree" is five and a half years . What will that cost? Understand the big picture.
Learn the difference between scholarships, grants and loans. Work with an admissions counselor or a financial aid counselor who can talk you through the award and explain each aspect of it.
Ask about fees and costs on top of what's in the award paperwork. Find out if there are any fees not showing up on the award letter. Fees at some colleges amount to more than $1,000 per year. Are they included in the award letter? Or will they be added to the bill when classes begin?
Scholarships are not just for freshmen. Many students and parents are unaware that scholarships are available through a student's college career, not just at the outset. Can you save money further down the line?
Find out about scholarship renewal requirements. When asking about scholarships, find out which are renewable and the requirements for renewal. How many times is it renewable and what are the requirements?
Find out if "outside" scholarships from a church, a workplace, or a business are "stackable." Does the college stack that financial aid directly on top of the other scholarships and grants they have offered? How will a scholarship affect your aid?
Mind the gap. Will your family need to take out any alternative loans to cover the gap between financial aid and total cost? Work with financial aid counselors to compare loan options side-by-side to determine the best option.
Pay attention to the "Universal Reply" date of May 1. This is the date by which most colleges will refund deposits if a student chooses another college. Talk to each college about the significance of this date.
Make sure you understand everything. Ultimately, you have to work to reach a point of crystal clarity on your financial aid award letter - parents and students need to know exactly how much their degree is going to cost and what out-of-pocket costs they will have to bear.
Rankings are not the whole story. College and university rankings may or may not be the most effective guide for deciding where to attend. Is a higher ranked, more expensive college best for you? A school needs to be the right fit for the student first and foremost.