When it comes to college, there are four kinds of students and five places to find money to pay for tuition, room, and board.
- High merit/high need. These lucky kids may go to school for all but nothing. Students accepted into a university that meets 100% of demonstrated need will be able to combine financial aid from both the school and the federal government. This is what financial aid was meant for: to help the best, brightest, and least able to afford school.
- High merit/no need. These students can find good money for college because the majority of scholarships and grants are now given out on a merit basis: strong grades and test scores. Students who score a 30 and above on the ACT will find plenty of scholarship offers with their name on them.
- Low merit/high need. There’s plenty of grant money available to help these students afford to go to college. The biggest obstacle they typically face is the financial aid process. There are strict deadlines and plenty of forms that must be filled out properly.
- Low merit/low need. In this case, students are going to pay sticker price, or something close to it. The best tip I can give to parents whose children fall into this category is to look for a less selective school. If the average ACT score for incoming freshmen is 17-21 and your child has a 24, that will significantly improve his or her chances at receiving merit-related financial aid.
Google “places to get money for college” and you’ll get something like 431 million hits. The truth is, there are only five.
- The federal government. Families looking for financial aid must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It’s much easier now that there’s a direct link into the IRS database that pulls the parents’ income into the FAFSA form. It opens October 1st every year, and you should start applying for aid October 1st the year before your child is going to school. Don’t procrastinate. Financial aid is given out on a first-come, first-served basis. The quicker you can get your financial aid information in—once your child is accepted, of course—they can start making you an offer. Low-income families are eligible for Pell grants and Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants.
- The state government. Does your state offer a scholarship? Many do, and they will offer money to students with qualifying grade-point averages. (Another reason to impress your child about the importance of making good grades.)
- The colleges and universities themselves. This is where the majority of aid comes from. Some schools have a chart that shows that as your GPA goes up and your SATs/ACTs go up, so can your scholarship money.
- Outside scholarships. You can use search tools like fastweb.com and unigo.com to find scholarship money. But that only amounts to a small amount of financial aid. “Scholarships” is a big buzzword, but it’s not where a lot of money comes from.
- Your pockets. The federal government will offer mom and dad a PLUS (Parent Loan to Undergraduate Students), and students can get federal direct loans. Or if they’re fortunate to have been saving their money in programs like a 529 plan, then they may already have cash set aside to pay for school.