If you plan to attend college for the first time in 2011 or have a family member who will, you’re about to embark on student financial aid season.
If you’re looking for money for college and want to apply for financial assistance, your first stop should be the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. All federal student loans, federal grants, and other forms of federal student aid are tied to this form.
Federal Student Aid
The FAFSA can be filled out and submitted online.. The FAFSA is available free of charge, and submission is also free. The federal deadline for submitting your FAFSA is June 30.
You don’t need to know which college or university you plan to attend in order to fill out or submit the form, but you will need to refer to your 2010 tax return. If you’re a dependent of your parents, you’ll need to have the 2010 tax return of your custodial parent(s) or the parent who claims you as a deduction, even if this parent doesn’t plan to help you pay for college.
Once you submit your FAFSA, the Department of Education will generate a Student Aid Report (SAR) that summarizes your and your parents’ financial information. You can choose which schools receive your SAR, and you can add schools to this list at any time.
The schools that receive your SAR will analyze your financial information and generate a financial aid package based largely on the school’s cost of attendance and the determination of your ability to pay. (Some schools also offer non-need-based financial aid, which is awarded on the basis of merit rather than on your financial need.)
Federal grant assistance is reserved for low-income and financial needy students. Most students, however, will qualify for federal college loans.
Federal Stafford student loans are available in both need-based and non-need-based versions. Need-based subsidized Stafford loans are reserved for students who demonstrate financial need. Non-need-based unsubsidized Stafford loans are available regardless of financial need. There’s no credit check or co-signer required for Stafford student loans; you take out these loans in your own name.
State Financial Aid
Some states also use the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for state student loan and grant assistance programs. Although the federal deadline for submitting the FAFSA is June 30, many states have earlier filing deadlines, with some falling as early as Feb. 15, 2011.
Other states have no specific application deadlines but award state-funded student aid on a first-come, first-served basis, processing college aid applications only as long as there are still state funds available to distribute.
The federal government also offers parent loans, known as PLUS loans, for parents who want to help their undergraduate student pay for college.
Although the Education Department doesn’t require you to have filled out a FAFSA in order for your parents to apply for a PLUS loan, many schools will require it. Such a school will not approve or certify an application for a PLUS parent loan until a completed FAFSA form is on file for the student.
As with federal student loans, repayment on federal PLUS loans can be deferred until you, the student, graduate or leave school.
The 1-2-3 of Getting Financial Aid for College
1) Complete Your FAFSA — Carefully
Filling out the FAFSA can be time-consuming, and it requires you to have a good deal of documentation on hand.
Since you’ll be submitting your FAFSA to the federal government, just like a tax return, it’s highly inadvisable to misstate or misrepresent your financial information on the FAFSA in any way. Irregularities in a FAFSA form are flagged and must be corrected before the form can be processed, delaying your financial aid application.
If you’re awarded grants, student loans, or other financial aid based on false or incorrect information that you submitted on the FAFSA, you may be required to repay any over-allocation of financial aid immediately. If the misstatements are determined to be deliberate or egregious, you may be subject to fines and other sanctions.
2) Search for Scholarships
While your FAFSA is being processed, begin hunting for scholarships. Scholarships are available for virtually all types of students in almost every field of study. Some scholarships are need-based, others are merit-based, and some are a combination of both.
Since scholarships provide you with award money that doesn’t need to be repaid, like a student loan, you can think of scholarships as “free money” for college.
Use an online scholarship search engine that keeps an updated database of scholarships and lets you search that database for free. The best online scholarship search sites routinely list millions of scholarship listings with billions of dollars of award money available.
3) Only Use Private Student Loans as a Last Resort
Once you receive your school financial aid package, make sure to take advantage of all your federal and state student aid options before you turn to higher-cost financial options.
Specifically, you should maximize your federal student loans before turning to the non-federal private student loans offered by banks and other for-profit private lenders.
Federal college loans offer fixed interest rates that are generally lower than the variable interest rates offered by private student loans. Federal loans also offer more flexible repayment options than the typical private student loan program. You should only turn to a private college loan when all your other federal and state student loan options have been exhausted.
Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/, private student loans: http://www.nextstudent.com/private-loans/private-loans.asp