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Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about making college affordable.
With higher living costs and fewer unskilled jobs available for Americans, it makes good sense to go to college. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics says enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities increased 37 percent between 2000 and 2010.
But affording a quality higher education can seem like a big obstacle. And the financial aid process can be very overwhelming and even intimidating for people who have never been through it. As a result, many parents leave the college planning to overworked school counselors, which leaves students with much less money for college.
It really isn’t as difficult as it seems to get money for school, though. There are great options for financial aid out there. With a little help finding and navigating those options, you can afford college or trade school for you or your children.
Free application for student aid
The government makes federal student aid available in the form of grants that don’t need to be paid back, student loans that must be paid back after graduation, and work study programs that provide job opportunities to help students earn extra money. Most colleges and universities participate in the Federal Student Aid program.
Your first step in obtaining financial aid is to complete the FAFSA, which stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This application can be completed completely online at this website.
Before you can complete this application, though, you will need to get together these things:
- A personal identification number from this site.
- Your Social Security number.
- Tax returns. If these are not yet completed, you can use your W-2 forms to show your income from previous years. Self-employed people can make an estimate.
- A good idea of the universities that you want to send the information to.
Parents of any income level can fill out the FAFSA, so don’t think that you must be low income to qualify for aid. In some cases, such as if you are here working with a green card or have battered spouse status, it is possible to get financial aid without being an U.S. citizen. Check out the qualifications here, if you are unsure about your eligibility.
There are a few things you should know about filling out your FAFSA. The colleges take your FAFSA information and grant you financial aid on a first come, first served basis. This means that the sooner you can get your FAFSA completed and turned in to the schools, the better. (This government site explains how schools determine how much aid you need.)
That may mean filling out your application before you have your tax returns. If you do this, the school may flag you and require you to fill out an income verification worksheet. In my opinion, it is well worth filling out an extra short form to have the peace of mind of getting FAFSA completed early.
Also, if you have limited time to work on the application, you can save your form and come back to complete it later. And once you submit it, you can come back and add, for instance, information from your tax returns. Your school may even go in and make changes to your application.
This flexibility makes FAFSA much less intimidating than if it were a one-time process that couldn’t be changed. I used to worry that the FAFSA police would come storming in my door if I made an error filling out my form. I found it was much easier to fill out than I had imagined.
When you return to the FAFSA website to complete your forms for the following years of school, the process is much easier, because the system saves your information from the previous years. All that you will have to do is update your information.
With your FAFSA completed, you will have more time to spend on scholarship applications and preparing for college. Take a deep breath and plunge right in. It’s easier than you think.