Your child has received several college acceptances and is close to picking the school of their dreams. Now comes the big question: How are you going to pay for it?


There are a variety of financial aid tools available to students to help pay for college, including scholarships, need-based awards, work-study employment and student loans. According to The National Center for Education Statistics, nearly two-thirds of today’s full-time college students receive some form of need-based aid. Need-based financial aid eligibility is based on two calculations – the total cost of education and the family’s ability to pay. While the cost of education can vary significantly from institution to institution, these calculations include all reasonable costs (tuition, room, board and living expenses) of attendance.

What exactly is financial aid?

Financial Aid is any grant or scholarship, loan, or paid employment offered to help a student meet his/her college expenses. Such aid is usually provided by various sources such as federal and state agencies, colleges, high schools, foundations, and corporations. Financial aid is based on “need,” while scholarships may be based on need, merit or both.  Loans can be federal or private but loans have to be paid back with low interest, usually after you graduate or leave school.

Federal student loans come in different categories, and may be subsidized or unsubsidized. With subsidized loans, the U. S. Department of Education pays the interest while you are enrolled in college.

You must demonstrate financial need to receive these. With unsubsidized loans, you pay all of the interest, but payments may be deferred until you finish your degree. Unsubsidized loans are awarded regardless of family income or financial need.

Most financial aid awards will not meet the full amount of a student’s financial need. For example, according the their website, the average percentage of need met for entering UMass Amherst undergraduate students is about 80 percent.  “The most important step for all students is to apply for financial aid,” says Suzanne Peters, the school’s Director of Financial Aid Services. “Whether the cost of a UMass Amherst education seems beyond your means, or you just need assistance in the form of a loan or campus job, complete and submit a FAFSA…The information it provides will enable UMass Amherst to determine whether you qualify for grants, scholarships, tuition credit, loans, and/or part-time employment to help defray your educational expenses.”

What is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a financial aid form used to determine your eligibility for financial aid from the Federal Government, including grants, loans and work-study. You will find the application at To apply for need-based financial aid, families must complete the FAFSA and, if appropriate, the College Scholarship Service’s PROFILE application ( The formulas consider a variety of family circumstances when determining eligibility. On the College Board website you’ll find financial aid calculators to help determine your individual cost of college. Be aware that there’s no real cut-off point or maximum income a family can have and still qualify for assistance. You might still qualify for need-based aid, even if you have a comparatively high income, especially if you have more than one child in college. Every student, regardless of financial situation, should consider applying for need-based aid to see what happens.

Once you are on the FAFSA site, you will be guided you through the steps you need to take to complete your application, including how to make your FSA ID, add FAFSA deadlines to your calendar, gather the correct documents, and use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

An overview of the financial aid options available through the FAFSA:

  • Grants and scholarships: There are four types of federal grants, including the Pell Grant, for undergraduate students with financial need. Go to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education ( to see what state grants are available to you. The federal government doesn’t offer scholarships, but colleges use the FAFSA to award money, and many private scholarship funds also require applicants to submit the FAFSA.
  • Student loans: There are several types of federal student loans, including both subsidized and unsubsidized direct loans, often called Stafford loans, and PLUS loans, which are for parents and graduate students. Some states have loan programs too, but borrow federal student loans first. They typically offer more generous benefits, including the ability to make payments based on your income.
  • Work-study: If you have a financial need, you can get a job on or near campus to cover some of your college costs through a federal work-study program. After you accept work-study funds offered in your aid package, it’s up to you to get a job that qualifies for the program and work to earn the money.

Three deadlines to consider when dealing with the FAFSA:

  1. Federal Deadline: Online applications must be submitted by midnight (CST), June 30. Any corrections or updates must be submitted by midnight (CST), Sept. 15.
  2. State Deadline: The deadline for Massachusetts is May 1 by midnight (CST).
  3. College Deadline: Check with the college(s) you are interested in attending. It is also important to check in with your college about its definition of an application deadline, whether it is the date the college receives your FAFSA, or the date your FAFSA is processed.

Two important FAFSA changes taking effect this year:

  1. The form became available three months earlier than it had previously, in October instead of January. Access for the FAFSA for the 2017-18 school year began Oct. 1, giving students more time to apply for aid.
  2. Families can use their prior-prior year tax information to complete the form instead of the prior year’s tax information. That means using 2015 tax information instead of 2016 tax information to complete the 2017-18 form. This allows families to file the FAFSA before they file their previous year’s taxes.

It’s important to carefully read the Financial Aid section on the website for each college. While all colleges use the FASFA, each individual school may have other forms they also use. We recommend having a separate folder for each school, and also setting up a calendar where you can keep track of scholarship, aid and FAFSA deadlines.

What is a college scholarship?

A scholarship is an award of financial aid for a student to further their education and is awarded based upon various criteria, which usually reflect the values and purposes of the donor or founder of the award. Scholarship money is not required to be repaid, similar to grants. Scholarships are often awarded on the basis of academic merit (great grades, community service, a great all-around story). Athletic and talent scholarships are also based on merit and not need. Generally, students do not have to apply for merit scholarships as the admissions team awards them at their discretion.

Finding the right scholarship:
Ask your employer if they offer college scholarships for the children of employees. Check out the alumni organizations in your area, as well as local religious organizations and affiliations. The Knights of Columbus, for example, have scholarship opportunities available to Catholic students whose fathers are members. lists potential scholarships for Jewish high school and college students. You’d be surprised to see that many community organizations, such as the sports team your child played on in high school, offer scholarships. Be sure to check the websites of the schools to which you are applying and see if there are any scholarships that might be right for your child. For example, each year Boston College awards millions of dollars in need-based scholarships to eligible undergraduates.

Some of the strangest scholarships out there include Prom Guide’s Cutest Couple Contest, Clowns of America, International Scholarship Create-A-Greeting-Card Scholarship, and Contest Zombie Apocalypse Scholarship. There is a scholarship out there for almost everyone. The best advice is to apply to as many as you can, since competition is tough.

Final steps to remember:

Be sure to review your financial aid award package.
After you’ve received your college acceptance letters, you’ll get a financial aid award letter from each school. Depending on your financial need, your award letters will have a mix of need-based and non-need-based federal and state aid, and potentially aid from the college itself. Just because you’re eligible for a certain type of aid doesn’t mean that you have to accept it. Accept all the free money and work-study opportunities before you take out any loans, as those come with a price tag. If you need to tap into loan dollars, borrow only as much as you truly need. You don’t have to borrow the maximum amount of loan money you’re eligible for.

You may appeal your award if you think you deserve more.
Sometimes your FAFSA doesn’t reflect a major change in your financial situation. For example, maybe a parent has lost a job, or an immediate family member is dealing with mounting medical bills. If this happens, you can appeal your financial aid award with your college’s financial aid office. Appeals processes vary by campus, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get more money, but it’s worth a shot, especially if you have a good reason for appealing.

Remember that you must renew your FAFSA every year of college.
You have to submit the FAFSA for each school year that you want to receive financial aid. But once you’ve submitted it the first time, you can fill out a renewal FAFSA in subsequent years. Renewal FAFSAs prefill some questions with information from past forms. Before you submit one, make sure it’s up to date. If your financial situation has changed substantially, you can also start over from scratch.

Remember that you can receive more than one type of financial aid.
As Boston University’s Financial Aid office stresses, an award package may include a combination of scholarships, grants, and other types of assistance, such as loans and work-study. Finally, keep in mind that the absolute best source of information comes from the colleges themselves. If you have questions, go straight to the Financial Aid office at the universities.  They are the experts by far and they are there to help you.

Tracy Miller Geary is a founding member of Enrollment Edge International, a local company that works with high school students and their parents on all aspects of the college application process, including testing, application preparation, essays, course selection and more. She can be reached at or visit EEI’s website:

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