Financing your education 101: The Basics
Hello super internaut~! So, you are trying to understand how to finance your college education? Whether it be an associates, bachelors, masters, doctoral or professional degree, there are some things that you need to know as you look for different ways to finance your education. Today I’m here to share with you the basics and set you up on a successful path.
Before we begin, I want to take some time to tell you a little bit about my college journey, specifically the financing part.
So…I was a first generation student (the first in my family to go to college), we had moved to the US about 3 years before I had to worry about college. Or rather 2 years before, since all the prep work should be done during your junior year of high school. In any case, I knew nothing about scholarships, grants, loans, well you name it. So if you ever felt as lost as me, don’t worry there is still hope.
I was lucky that my high school required me to fill out a FAFSA and apply at my local college, otherwise I probably would have never made it to be honest. I was offered a scholarship and due to my limited financial resources I was also eligible for grants which together allowed me to finance my education in its entirety and I am college debt free…I have other debts. BUT no college debt so that’s a start.
Because I was so uninformed I dedicated myself throughout college to inform others about these resources. Especially to those, who like me where the first in their families to attend college and would have little sources of information. I was a college mentor for about a year and a half, and after a stint in management at a major retailer, I became a Scholarships Advisor, and the rest, as they say it’s history.
So keeping true to my mission of informing the public about these sources of funding here are the basics of what you need to know to finance your education:
Whether you (or your parents) are able to afford college I still recommend that you look for alternatives to finance your education. I cannot tell you how many cases I have seen of students that never looked into options and all of a sudden their circumstances change; their parents were unable to support them or their finances changed dramatically, ultimately leading them to abandon their college career.
Look into your top 5 college options and research their scholarships and grants. The majority of schools work out a combination between federal and state aid with college funded opportunities in order to create your “financial aid” or “Award” package –the money offered to you should you decide to attend that particular institution.
The better grades you have, the better opportunities (generally speaking). Also keep in mind the cost of the college you are attending as there are many factors that come into play to determine that cost.
Ah, and super important that you look into deadlines. Generally, all this research should be done the summer of your junior year of high school (when transitioning to being a senior). Or a year prior to starting your college program for those that are not high school students.
GATHER YOUR DOCUMENTS
Whether it be FAFSA (the financial aid application) or scholarships, both of these require several documents, for example: income tax forms, transcripts, resumes, residency documents, personal statements, etc.
Concerning FAFSA, you need the following information:
- General information: name, address, status (undergrad, grad, professional)
- Income Tax Forms
- You could use the transfer tool, to retrieve this information directly from the IRS, which would be the best option, however, at times it is unable to retrieve the information (the tool has been flaky this last academic year…)
- If you are a permanent resident then you need your residency card ( it will ask you for your Alien number)
- Your FSA ID, both yours and your parents’ or legal guardian if you are a dependant
- You can create and FSA ID here
This information should be enough, although you may need more or less as every situation is different.
As for scholarships those vary by scholarship but I can tell you that the majority require the following:
- Resume or CV
- Transcripts (both official and unofficial)
- Personal Statement
- General application
Of course, that is what the majority require, because scholarships can be awarded based on a number of things you will also see those that require much more or even less than what I have listed, but it is always good to have these documents on hand.
It’s happened many, many, times that you have everything ready and you forget to click the “submit” button, and guess what, yes, your application is dismissed. All your hard work thrown away because you forgot the most basic of things, to actually submit your application. (I have seen this several times in my workplace, it’s sad, but it’s true).
Please for all that is holy do not forget to submit your application. On this same note, please keep in mind the deadlines! These are extremely important and more often than not organizations will not make exceptions for you. Even if you are the most amazing applicant, if you do not submit your application in a timely manner, you might as well never had filled it out.
I recommend that you write on your calendar the deadline for each application, preferably a day or 2 before hand in case any issues come up you have time to troubleshoot them.
For FAFSA the priority deadline is March 15 of every year. However, if you can submit earlier than that go ahead and do so, as it takes a while to process. (You can start applying as early as October!)
For scholarship applications, they all vary, you want to look into them a year before you actually start your program, so you have time to fill them out correctly and get the funding when you actually need it. The majority of the scholarships are for the following academic year.
You want to follow up with your applications in a professional manner. Just enough to show that you are responsible and concerned for the status of your applications, but not to the point that you seem desperate or demanding.
SIDE NOTE: I work closely with the Financial Aid Department in my university and believe me, they are always willing to help, much more so if the person is respectful. But by all means make sure that your application gets processed and you get proper consideration.
As a Scholarship Advisor, I receive numerous calls from people inquiring about their scholarship status. I’ve been there many times before, so I understand the frustration. Nevertheless, just be courteous and ensure that your items get processed and reviewed. Be timely as well. If you have not gotten any confirmation then you want to follow up BEFORE the deadline just to troubleshoot any issues. In the event that you have confirmation that everything went through, then enjoy the ride and move on.
EVALUATE YOUR OPTIONS
By this time you receive letters from all the different colleges with your financial aid award letter, in which they give you an estimate of how much funding you will be receiving for the upcoming academic year.
Now let’s assume that you have already evaluated your college options on other factors that are important to you, such as: location, program structure, campus life, etc. Now we get to crunching the numbers, because financial information should always be an important consideration in anything pertaining to your future.
Look at the different financial award packages that each school offer. Will you always go with the one that is offering you the most money? Or the one that is the most inexpensive? The answer is… it depends. Remember that you need to be able to consider other costs than purely tuition and fees. Many times schools will offer you funding to cover said tuition and fees, but what about other costs? Like rent, food, gas, insurance, well you name it. Take the time to evaluate your different options and select one that meets your needs but will not impose an unnecessary burden on you either.
DEVELOP YOUR BUDGET
So after much consideration you finally decide which college you want to go to. Phew! Well wasn’t that a long process? And you haven’t even begun school yet!
Now that you have finally selected your perfect institution and academic program, we go back to the numbers. Remember the other costs I mentioned (i.e. food, rent, insurance, etc.)? Now it’s time to factor those costs in there. Will you be living at home and commute to school every day? It might save you rent money, but don’t forget to include transportation costs. Will you move away from home? Where will you live? (TIP: as great as college dorms are, they are costly, try to look for a more cost effective option in the surrounding areas).
Include as many costs as you can and even miscellaneous expenses, it’s always better to overestimate in this case. Compare those expenses to the money that you have been offered, how do these numbers look? Is your option still feasible? Will it require you to get a job? How much debt will you be taking out by the end of the 4 years?
As you analyze your numbers and come to the most reasonable decision, start prepping to embark on this new journey.
ENJOY THE RIDE
Now that all the financial grunt work has been squared away it’s time to enjoy the ride.
Whether your education will be funded by solely grants and scholarships (woohoo!) or you use a combination of loans, grants, and scholarships (maybe even a job -my heart goes to you)…
Make the best of your scholastic career! At the end of the day this is an investment in your future that ideally will get you closer to achieving your dreams.
I hope this post was able to help you in understanding more about financing your education. These were only basic tips of course, but if you have additional questions do not hesitate to let me know!
If you’ve already finished this journey, how did you finance your education? If you are in the process of figuring this particular component out, what other burning questions do you have about financing college?