July 21, 2011

Even though the school year is still a month away, it’s important to consider the finances behind a college education. While applying for financial aid is incredibly important, there are also a number of independent achievement scholarships students can be awarded to help shoulder the costs of tuition.
The first step in acquiring financial aid for college is to make sure you have filed your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). It was already due for this coming school year, but if you aren’t beginning your schooling until next fall, it is a good thing to keep on your radar, along with any school application deadlines. This application is used to determine whether you are eligible for federal loans to put toward your education at the school you choose. It is important to remember that if you do accept federal loans, they must be paid back upon completion of schooling.
Another good thing to consider when filling out your FAFSA is whether or not you would be interested in the Federal Work Study Program. Many schools, especially public colleges and universities, participate in this type of program. Indicating on your FAFSA that you’re interested lets the financial aid office know they should calculate it into your financial aid package if you qualify. Once you receive your eligibility from the government, the financial aid office will let you know if you qualify for Federal Work Study and how many hours you can work to help reduce the cost of your tuition. If you’re accepted, you will work with your college to determine an on-campus job, for which your school is required to pay you at least minimum wage and accommodate your class schedule. If the Federal Work Study Program sounds like a good fit for you, make sure you fill out your FAFSA as early as possible, as each school’s funding is limited and jobs can fill up quickly.
When applying to schools, there is generally an option included in your application to make sure you’re being considered for financial aid. Sometimes it is a separate application itself, in which case it is still in your best interest to complete it; this will determine if you are eligible for achievement, out-of-state or heritage-based scholarships from the university itself. For example, a school may offer a certain amount of scholarship money based on SAT or ACT performance, with higher performing students receiving a larger amount of scholarship money. Because these scholarships are merit-based, they do not need to be paid back after graduation. When you receive a financial aid package, each “loan” (meaning must be paid back) and/or “award” (meaning scholarship) you receive will be clearly marked.
If you’re interested in searching for other scholarships, there are many resources available online.  For example, websites like Fastweb.com, Scholarships.com and ScholarshipExperts.com allow you to search for scholarships (for free) by criteria such as major, state, grade level, etc. You can also contact the guidance department in your district, or even do a quick Google search. Scholarships are available from local, national and international organizations (there’s even a scholarship for students who are left-handed!), and all have their own set application process. It is up to you to determine how many scholarships you want and/or need to apply for. Scholarships also tend to come in varying amounts, but with the cost of higher education, any amount of aid is valuable.
What scholarship resources do you use?