Understanding How to Prioritize Your Financial Aid Search

The cost of attending college continues to become more expensive every year. A College Board survey found that tuition at a public four-year college rose $6,870 over a 30-year period. For a private nonprofit school, tuition rates have risen $18,820 over a 30-year period.

As a result, most students have to rely on financial aid to pay for college which is self-evident, given the rise in student loan debt. According to the Federal Reserve, student loan debt reached an all-time high of $1.46 trillion at the end of 2018. And student loan debt has more than doubled over the past 10 years.

That’s why students who are preparing to go to college need to figure out their financial aid situation early. Researching your options and planning ahead could save you from getting strapped with unnecessary student loan debt after graduation.

The following steps will outline how you can get started and where to prioritize your financial aid search.

Start Searching For Scholarships & Grants

Before you take out a single student loan, you should maximize all the scholarships and grants available to you. Scholarships are usually awarded based on merit while grants are need-based.

This is essentially free money to attend school and can help you close the gap between your savings and the full cost of attending school. However, many students don’t apply for scholarships because they assume they won’t qualify. But new scholarships are created all the time, you just have to start the process early and know where to look.

The best place to find scholarships and grant is on scholarship databases. Local scholarships will be less competitive but you should apply for national scholarships as well.

To maximize your chance of earning scholarships, experts recommend that students begin the process early. But don’t think you’ve missed the boat if you’re already enrolled in college. College students can still apply for scholarships and grants once they’re in school.

Fall Back On Federal Financial Aid

If you can’t avoid taking out student loans, federal loans are the best place to start. At this point, you should have already filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is available on October 1 and you’ll need to reapply each year.

Once, you’ve filled out a FAFSA, you’ll receive a financial aid letter outlining everything you qualified for. This will include scholarships and grants, federal work-study programs you qualify for, and federal student loans.

The student loans will usually include a combination of subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Subsidized loans don’t start accruing interest until after you graduate so it’s best to use those first.

There are a number of advantages to taking out federal loans. The interest rate is much lower than private loans and you’ll be eligible for certain federal protections, including income-driven repayment plans and loan forbearance.

But federal loans are still debt that you will have to repay once you graduate. And these loans cannot be discharged even if a borrower files for bankruptcy.

Look for State-Specific or University Financial Aid

Another option to consider is government aid or university aid options. These options are not as widespread or easy to get but they are possible.

State-specific scholarships will be available for students based on merit, need, or other unique qualifications. For instance, some companies will fund career-specific scholarships.

And some states will offer scholarships to students pursuing a degree in a high-need field of study like nursing or teaching. These scholarships usually come with an agreement to work in a particular area or job for several years following graduation.

And many universities offer financial aid to their students. The best way to learn more about this is by talking to your school’s financial aid office. Find out if there are any scholarships available to students in your field of study.

Last Resort: Look Into Private Student Loans

If you’ve completed the following steps but still have gaps in your college funding, private student loans may be able help.

The application process for private student loans involves going through a bank or credit union. Since these are private loans, a student will be subject to an individual lender’s underwriting criteria. Therefore, it may be tough to get approved or favorable terms, but some students may be able to rely on a co-signer for help.

Compared to federal student loans, private loans are disadvantageous. As a new student with low credit, you may have to deal with higher interest rates. The loan often begins accruing interest immediately, meaning you’ll end up paying more money than you borrowed. And private loans don’t have many of the benefits offered by federal loans, such as income-driven repayment plans and student loan forgiveness.

Despite all this, research shows that individuals who earn a Bachelor’s degree fare better than those who don’t, regardless of their student debt status. If private loans make it possible for you to pay your tuition, then they may be worth considering if they’re instrumental in your career plans. If you need to take out private loans, make sure you do your homework first.

Andrew Rombach works for LendEDU, a consumer education website. Andrew left college with student debt; looking back, he wishes he spent more timing finding scholarships!


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