Welcome to the Make Me a Freshman Financial Aid Guide.
We will walk you through an overview of the financial aid process.
Let’s face it: college can be really expensive. Add together the tuition for classes, the cost for room and board, pricey books, health insurance to comply with university policies, (plus money to chip in for pizza and fun with your friends on the weekend!), the fees for attending college can quickly add up.
Fortunately, if you know where to look, there are ways to significantly lower or totally eliminate the cost of attending college. This guide is here to show you how to make college a reality. The biggest lesson we hope you leave with: the sticker price that colleges post is not likely to be what you actually pay!
Your Cost of Attendance
is the number you should consider.
Before we talk about how to lower the costs of college, let’s look at an example cost breakdown of a typical private four-year college. We’ll call this college FroshU! (Note that public colleges often cost less, and we will discuss this later.)
Again, we know that seeing these numbers can make college seem too expensive, but we will show you how to reduce your costs!
|Tuition and Fees
|Room and Board
|Books and Supplies
In order to better understand the full sticker price, let’s break it down by each line item:
The Tuition and Fees
represents the costs of all the professors who teach at FroshU as well as all of the other costs associated with running the college--from the light bulbs in the classrooms to the security guards who keep the campus safe.
The Room and Board
represents the cost of the residential hall that John would live in, as well as the cost of the meal plan that John would receive. This is John’s rent and cost of food.
The Books and Supplies
represents the expected cost of buying books, notebooks, and other school supplies that John would need to succeed as he started college. These costs can sometimes be reduced by renting books or buying used ones online.
The Other Expenses
represents other costs that John would likely incur including his expected travel costs to get to college each year, the cost of health insurance, and other daily expenditures like laundry.
There is no single answer because everyone will pay a different amount for college. The government and your college can offer you financial aid, which will reduce your cost of attending--sometimes all the way to zero! This depends on your college, your financial situation/need, and other factors.
To figure out how much each college will cost to attend, you can get an estimate on the financial aid website for each college. Then, once you are accepted to a college, you will receive an official financial aid package that breaks down exactly how much and what type of aid you will receive for that particular college.
In its simplest definition, financial aid is money given to students that reduces the cost of attendance. There are four main categories of financial aid: federal aid, state aid, institutional aid from colleges, and outside scholarships. Let’s review them all!
The United States federal government gives out over $150 billion in federal aid for students to attend college every year. In order to receive any aid, students need to apply via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that is found on FAFSA.gov
The FAFSA is an online application that should take about 30 minutes to complete. It asks for information on your family’s income to best determine your family’s ability to pay for college.
After you submit your FAFSA, you will receive the Student Aid Report, or SAR. Your SAR will show your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, which is a calculation of what the government thinks that your family should be able to pay for your college education.
The FAFSA is the start to all government and most institutional aid. For more information and help with filling out the FAFSA, check out our Guide to the FAFSA
There are three basic types of federal aid that students can receive: federal grants, federal loans, and work-study.
are given to students based on need, and they are NOT expected to be paid back. Think of this as free money to be used for your tuition. The main type of federal grant is the Pell Grant that gives eligible students up to $5,775 per year depending on their financial need. For students with exceptional need, there is the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) that can give students up to $4,000 in additional aid.
are loans that are from the federal government. These differ from grants in that the loans MUST be repaid. First-year students can receive up to $5,500 in federal loans. However, these loans offer students great deals with lower interest rates. Additionally, many of the loans are subsidized Stafford loans, loans that the government will pay interest for while you are in college. Check out our Federal Loan Guide
is aid that you can receive by working at your college. Students with financial need, as determined by the FAFSA, are qualified for jobs with wages subsidized by the federal government. If you qualify, you will be able to work at jobs within your school, community service organizations around your school, and even some private companies. Learn more through our Work-Study Guide
Depending on the state in which you live, you may be eligible for financial aid offered by your state. In most cases, students must attend a public higher education institution within the state. These vary a lot by state but are certainly worth exploring further, so check out our Guide to Exploring State-Based Financial Aid
You can also receive scholarships from your college. This is often called college-specific aid or institutional aid. You will not know exactly what your colleges are able to give you in aid until you have applied and been accepted by the school, but most college websites offer a calculator that will help you estimate the total cost of attending based on your family's financial situation.
Therefore, even if you question whether you can afford a certain school, you should apply anyway! It can cost up to $100 to apply to some schools, but, if you are worried about the cost of the application, you may be able to qualify for an application fee waiver. Check out our Guide to Application Fee Waivers
Scholarships from colleges are often classified in one of two ways: need-based aid or merit-based aid. Need-based aid is awarded to students with financial need, based on their financial situation, whereas merit-based aid is awarded to students with certain accomplishments.
Most colleges use the FAFSA to determine need-based aid, which is financial aid awarded only based on your financial need and not for merit (like grades, test scores, athletics, etc.) Some colleges also require the CSS/Financial Aid Profile. The CSS/Financial Aid Profile helps colleges better determine your aid; check out our Guide to the CSS/Financial Aid Profile
Examples of merit-based aid are much more broad: these can include academic scholarships awarded to students with exceptional marks of scholastic achievement (often judged based on high school GPA, class rank, or SAT/ACT score), athletic scholarships for athletes, and activity-based scholarships for students with various skills in art, public speaking, and music, among others. Schools will usually advertise these, so you should reach out to any coaches, professors, or administrators about your eligibility for these. For some scholarships, like athletic scholarships, it is important to be active in contacting coaches earlier on in your college-search process given NCAA recruiting timelines.
It's worth noting here that private non-profit colleges can often provide more institutional aid, but public colleges (meaning colleges funded mostly through the government) typically have a lower sticker price. That means that public colleges could be the cheaper option, but private colleges may be cheaper after financial aid. Again, you should look at your Cost of Attending (and not the sticker price) when choosing a college--and we recommend looking at both private (non-profit) and public colleges.
You can also find scholarships outside of the government and colleges. Many companies and non-profits offer scholarship contests all sorts of things, including grades, extracurricular activities, your parents' jobs, your interests, etc.
You can find these scholarships through your high school or online though a scholarship search website.
The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and you will need this application to apply for government aid and most institutional aid. The FAFSA will ask you information about your financial situation, and your parents will likely be required to submit information as well. The federal government will then use this information to compile a Student Aid Report, or SAR. This will include the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, which is a calculation of what the government thinks that your family should be able to pay for your college education. Also, on the FAFSA, you will list your colleges, and those colleges will use the SAR to determine how much financial aid to award you.
The FAFSA is available starting October 1st. Each college and some states have their own priority deadlines for submitting the FAFSA. If you miss these deadlines, you should still apply, but you should apply before these deadlines to maximize the amount of financial aid you receive. When you add colleges on Make Me a Freshman, we will tell you when these deadlines occur for each of your colleges, and we will help you apply on time! In general, though, the sooner you apply, the better!
Tip: Remember, the first F in FAFSA stands for free, so you should never pay to file your FAFSA. You can find the free application at FAFSA.gov.
So how do you actually fill out the FAFSA? Let’s break it down step-by-step. We encourage you to do this with a parent because you will likely need to submit financial information about your parents.
STEP 1: Gather Financial Information
If you are applying for the 2017-2018 school year, you should gather your financial and tax information for the year 2015. You will need to include your parents' financial information as well, unless you are considered an independent student, as defined by the FAFSA. This link
will help you determine if you must include your parents.
The FAFSA will ask for the following:
STEP 2: Create a FSA ID
- Taxable income for both the parents and student (wages, pensions, capital gains, etc.)
- Non-taxable income for both the parents and student (worker's compensation, welfare benefits, etc.)
- Federal income taxes
- Total amount in cash, savings, and checking accounts of parents and student
- Net worth of investments (not including retirement plans)
- Net worth of second homes (your primary residence is not included!)
In order to submit the FAFSA online, you will need to create a FSA ID. We recommend that everyone submit the FAFSA online. While you are able to mail a paper copy of your FAFSA, the online version is easier to navigate and limits mistakes.
The FSA ID is simply a pin number that allows you to virtually access and submit your FAFSA online. You can create a FSA ID on FAFSA.gov
. All you need is an email and a Social Security Number. The website will prompt you to create a username and passwords. Once you register, you will get your FSA ID. It’s as simple as creating a new Facebook profile!
If you do not have a Social Security Number, you may still be eligible for some financial aid. Learn more here
STEP 3: Part 1 of the FAFSA
Part 1 of the FAFSA will ask you for basic information about yourself. You will need to fill out your name, address, and some basic information about your parents. This is a straightforward part of the application that should not take too long.
STEP 4: Part 2 of the FAFSA
Part 2 of the FAFSA asks for the student’s financial information. If you filled out a Form 1040 with the IRS, you should take this out. Additionally, you might be able to utilize IRS Data Retrieval Tool that will allow you to automatically fill in this form based on the taxes you filed.
You will also need to enter information about your assets, including how much you have in your bank accounts. Thus, it’s helpful to have this information easily available (see STEP #1).
STEP 5: Part 3 of the FAFSA
Part 3 of the FAFSA seeks to determine if you are a dependent of your parents. Most students will be a dependent; however, if you answer yes to any of the questions asked, you will be considered as an independent and will not need any of your parent’s information—proceed to part 5. However, most students will be considered an independent and should proceed to Part 4a of the FAFSA.
STEP 6: Part 4 of the FAFSA
Part 4 of the FAFSA asks for financial information about your parents. Your parent will also have to create a FSA ID to access the FAFSA online to fill out this section. This is very easy and will be helpful since they will be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval tool to flow all of their information into the FAFSA. This section is almost the same at Part 2, except it asks for your parent’s financial information as opposed to yours.
STEP 7: Part 5 of the FAFSA
Part 5 is only for individuals who are independents (as determined by Part 3). Most students will get to skip this step, but if you are an independent, you will have to answer this series of straightforward questions.
STEP 8: Part 6 of the FAFSA
Students should list all the colleges that they plan to apply to or have already submitted an application to for consideration. If you have applied for a public college run by your state and are seeking state aid, you should list that college first. Many states will only consider aid if a state school is listed first. The online FAFSA will only let you list 10 schools, but it is okay if you plan to list more. List the ten schools with the earliest financial aid deadlines on the FAFSA. Once you receive your Student Aid Report, you will be able to go back and delete these schools and add new ones (more on this in STEP 11).
STEP 9: Part 7 of the FAFSA
Both the student and parent will have to (virtually) sign the FAFSA by submitting their FSA ID. This is the easiest part and confirms that you have been honest with the information you have submitted. After you sign the FAFSA, you can submit it!
STEP 10: Receive SAR and Check for Errors
After submitting the FAFSA, you will receive the Student Aid Report with the Expected Family Contribution via email. This will also be distributed to all the colleges you listed to consider you for financial aid. If there are errors, it’s important to correct them by following the directions as outlined in the email.
STEP 11: Add Additional Schools
If you have applied to more than ten colleges or decided to apply to more colleges since originally filling out the FAFSA, you should add colleges to your list. You can delete previously added colleges (they have already received your SAR and have all your information!) and add the new ones.
STEP 12: Wait to Hear from Schools
You will not know what your financial aid is until you hear from the schools you have been admitted to and received a financial aid award from them. This will usually happen between March and May. In your admission’s package, you will receive the total financial aid award. This will include any federal aid, state grants, and financial aid provided by the school.
A few things to keep in mind...
The SAR includes the EFC, the Estimated Family Contribution, which is held constant for all colleges. Regardless of the college you attend, this is the estimated amount that you and your family should be able to contribute. However, this does not mean that this is the only thing you are responsible to pay for, just what the federal government’s calculations deem reasonable. Your Cost of Attendance is the sticker price minus your financial aid, which may or may not be the same as your Expected Family Contribution. Therefore, it’s important to try to get as much financial aid as possible.
Please note that you must submit the FAFSA every year. Also, if your family situation changes, you should talk to the colleges you have been accepted to (or the college you plan to attend) and ask for an adjusted financial aid package to account for the change in your circumstances.
Once you submit your FAFSA, you will be eligible to receive federal loans as part of the financial aid packages awarded by the schools that accept you. There are four types of loans that the federal government offers students and their families. Before we get into the specifics, it is important to remember that all loans, unlike grants, must be paid back. Therefore, make sure that you have used all your grant options before taking out loans.
Tip: Use loans as the last means of financing your education. Try your best to get as much of your financial aid in the form of grants—money that does not have to be repaid (free money!).
Loans can seem confusing, so let’s try to simplify the process with a basic example. Let’s say, that you receive a loan for $10,000 at an interest rate of 10 percent over a ten-year period. This means that you will receive $10,000 today and will be expected to make monthly payments (or on rare occasions annual payments) that will go towards paying back the $10,000 that you received as well as the interest that you have accrued throughout the life of the loan.
Every month starting the month after you receive the loan, you will pay a monthly payment that will go towards repaying both the $10,000 you received and the interest that slowly accrues. Since the interest rate is 10%, every month you must pay 1/12 of that, or .83% of the balance of the loan in interest. In this case, the monthly amount would be $132.15.
Tip: You can see exactly how this payment is calculated by using an online loan calculator, which computes the loan payment with the three key inputs: the loan amount ($10,000), the number of monthly payments (120), and the monthly interest rate (.83%).
If this is still confusing, it’s ok! Before taking out loans, there is typically a required online counseling session to make sure that you understand the terms of your loan.
Since we now have a basic understanding about how loans work, let’s look at the loans that the federal government will offer you—in the order of which ones you should try to access first.
Best Loan Option: Federal Perkins Loans
Perkins loans are loans that are offered by your college, but subsidized by the federal government. Perkins loans are only available to students who show extreme financial need and allow students to take loans up to $5,500 annually (and up to $27,500 total). These loans offer a fixed interest rate of 5 percent and do not have any origination fees
The biggest benefit of these loans is that they are subsidized—the government will pay interest on your loans while you are in school, so you do not need to start paying back your loans while you are studying! Even better, you have a six-month grace period after you leave school before you must start repaying the loan, meaning you don’t need to worry about paying back your loans until after graduation.
These loans are only reserved for those who show very significant financial need, so you may need to utilize the second best option.
Second (Sometimes the VERY) Best Option: Subsidized Stafford Student Loans
The subsidized Stafford loan is also a need-based loan, but students do not need to show as much need as they would to qualify for the Perkins loan. The subsidized Stafford loan offers similar advantages to the Perkins loan, since it too is subsidized—the government pays the interest for you until you graduate. The rate of the subsidized Stafford loan is determined each year based on the rate at which the federal government can borrow. Since this can change, sometimes this is the best option--even better than the Perkins loans. However, the rate is fixed for the life of the term, one of the many advantageous to federal loans! Eligible students can get a loan for up to $5,500 per year depending on their grade level.
Third Best Option: Unsubsidized Stafford Student Loans
The unsubsidized Stafford loans offer the same rates and same terms as subsidized Stafford loans, except that the government will not pay the interest accrued during your time in school. Don’t worry though, if you cannot afford the interest while you are in school, you can roll it into the principle payment to be paid once you are out of school. This will increase the amount you will have to borrow (and pay back), which is why the subsidized loans are preferred, but are still preferred to private loans given the generous payback period and fixed rate. Students do not need to show financial need to be eligible for these loans and can take up to $20,500 (less the total of subsidized loans), depending on their grade level.
Fourth Best Option: Direct PLUS Loans
Direct PLUS loans are loans that the federal government offers to parents of students. Parents do not need to show financial need and can borrow up to the full cost of attendance (minus financial aid received). Similar to the Stafford student loans, the rates are determined by the federal government’s ability to borrow, but include a greater premium, meaning they will have a higher interest rate than the previous loans mentioned above.
A Few Things to Consider...
Loans must be paid back regardless of whether you finish college, get a job, or can afford the loans. When you take out a loan, think critically about whether or not you think you will be able to reasonably pay back the loan. Academic studies routinely show that college is worth the investment, but make sure that the loans you take out will fit into your ideal future plans. Be realistic and plan ahead. Moreover, student loans cannot be forgiven in the case of bankruptcy, so they will follow you around until you pay them regardless of your circumstances. Be very cautious with loans, but also remember that the federal loans offer great deals that are usually great tools to help fund your higher education.
Most states offer need-based financial aid to students that are residents of the state and are attending an in-state college. In order to determine the aid available to you and whether or not you are eligible, select the state you are from on the map created by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators
After you submit your FAFSA, the federal government will send your Student Aid Report (SAR) to all the colleges that you have indicated on the FAFSA. For most states, you will automatically be eligible for aid if you add an eligible college to your list. However, for some states you also need to file supplementary forms with their office of higher education to qualify. Make sure that you check with the state you are a residence of in order to determine both your eligibility and what you must do in order to qualify.
Tip: If you are applying to any public colleges, list at least one of them first on your FAFSA. Public colleges will almost always be eligible schools for state grant programs.
Some states will also offer students loans to cover the costs of education. Sometimes students who are out-of-state residents but attending a college within the state can qualify for these loans. Usually, the federal governments loans are cheaper and better options, so students should try to expire all their options with the federal government first.
A Few Things to Consider...
State aid is a great way to cover the costs of higher education. In most cases, states offer grants that don’t need to be paid back. These are always better than loans!
There are costs to applying for college--fees for taking tests like the SAT and ACT, fees for sending your score reports to colleges, and fees for processing your applications.
Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to waive these fees if you cannot afford them.
SAT/ACT Fee Waivers
Students are generally eligible for SAT and ACT fee waivers if they meet one of the following criteria: qualified for federal free or reduced-lunch program, enrolled in program for economically disadvantaged (such as Upward Bound), reside in a foster home, or live in publicly subsidized housing.
These fee waivers will allow you to take the SAT and the ACT (different waivers are needed for both) and will also give you access to four free score reports (in addition to the score reports you can send after you take the test).
Want to know how to get these fee waivers? Add "Fee Waivers" on your financial aid page
of Make Me a Freshman, and we will show you exactly how to get these fee waiver!
Tip: Both the ACT and SAT allow you to send scores to colleges immediately after you take the test, but before seeing the scores, for free. Since scores often determine which schools you will apply to, there is a good chance you do not know every school you plan to apply to when you sit for the test (especially if you take the test in your junior year). We encourage you to list the four schools you think you are most likely to apply to when taking the test in order to save money. Make sure to use these free score reports! In addition to these four free reports, if you get a fee waiver, you can send four more free score reports any time after your test.
Application Fee Waivers
There are several ways to waive the fees for college applications.
If you are applying to colleges through the Common Application and have met the criteria to be eligible for SAT/ACT fee waivers, you are automatically qualified for fee waiver to all the colleges under the Common Application. You can request this fee waiver (which is as easy as checking a box) on the Common App’s “Profile” screen under the “Common Application Fee Waiver” section. When you request the fee waiver, the Common App will email your counselor to confirm your need, and you will be all set to apply for free! Learn more here
If you received fee waivers for the SAT/SAT Subject Tests, then you will also receive four fee waivers for college applications. These are available through the College Board.
NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, also provides a fee waiver. Eligible students will receive fee waivers to apply to four colleges through NACAC. You can learn more here
, or by adding fee waivers to your checklist on your Financial Aid page
of Make Me a Freshman.
Note that most, but not all, colleges accept these fee waivers.
The CSS/Financial Aid Profile is run by the College Board and is another way for colleges to determine the financial need of your family. About 300 colleges use the CSS/Financial Aid Profile in conjunction with the FAFSA in order to get a better determination of your family’s needs and assets. The schools that use the CSS/Financial Aid Profile utilize it in order to get a better picture of your family’s financial needs. These schools tend to have the most financial aid to give out and the CSS/Financial Aid Profile gives them a better understanding of where it should be directed.
The CSS is similar to the FAFSA in that it asks for a lot of financial information. It should take about an hour if you collect the forms you will need before completing it.
To learn exactly which colleges take the CSS/Financial Aid Profile, and to see exactly how to submit the CSS/Financial Aid Profile, add "College Specific Aid" on your Financial Aid page
of Make Me a Freshman.
Financial Documents Needed
Collect these financial documents and have them ready when you fill out the CSS/Financial Aid Profile. You will need these for you and your parents. Whereas the FAFSA will only ask you for the financial information of the parent you live with, the CSS/Financial Aid Profile will want the information for both your parents, even if you just live with one.
- Tax returns from current year
- Tax returns from previous year
- W-2 and any other receipt of income
- Receipts of untaxed income or benefits from current year and previous year
- Current balance of cash, checking, and savings account
- Record of financial holdings (stocks, bonds, trusts)
If you parents do not want to share their information with you, they will need to create their own account with the College Board to fill out their sections of the CSS/Financial Aid Profile.
Filling out the CSS/Financial Aid Profile
As you fill out the CSS/Financial Aid Profile online, you will be able to save your progress. The CSS/Financial Aid Profile is helpful, as each question has a “?” button that details what needs to go into the answer. If you have all of the financial documents ready, filling out the CSS/Financial Aid Profile should be easy.
Paying for the CSS/Financial Aid Profile
It costs $25 to send the CSS/Financial Aid Profile to the first college and $16 to send it each subsequent college. This can add up, but you should not shy away from applying to colleges that participate in the CSS/Financial Aid Profile since many of these schools will be able to offer you the most money. If this cost is prohibitive, you may apply for a fee waiver to send the CSS/Financial Aid Profile to eight schools for free.
Tip: By adding "College Specific Aid" on your Financial Aid page of Make Me a Freshman, you will get step-by-step instructions to learn how to submit the CSS/Financial Aid Profile.
Work-study is a student jobs program that is subsidized by the federal government. After submitting your FAFSA, you may be eligible for work-study if your college offers a federal work-study program (and most schools do!).
Under the work-study program, the federal government agrees to pay a portion of the wages that you receive at a job, which incentivizes your school and other community organizations to hire you! You will always be paid at least the minimum wage and can often get paid even more!
Once you get to campus, your college's financial aid office will give you a guide or listing to all the work-study jobs that are available to you. The awesome thing about this program is that a lot of the jobs are academic-related, meaning that you will be able to build your resume and gain valuable experience, while also making money!
Some work-study jobs include:
- Working as a research assistant
- Working in a research lab
- Working for an academic departmen
- Working at a college's dining hall
- Working at the college's gym
- Working as a course assistant
- Working for the college's athletic department