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Students with the desire to pursue post-secondary education and the willingness to work hard shouldn’t let worries about finances discourage them. Financial aid packages in the form of scholarships, grants, loans, and work-study programs are available at colleges and career schools, and there are many ways to save on costs. Completing forms and meeting deadlines are crucial components of the process, but the first thing students and parents must do is become informed.
Financial Aid Basics
There are two basic types of financial aid: need-based and merit-based. Need-based aid is determined by the cost of attendance at a particular school and a family's ability to pay for it. This aid can come in the form of grants, loans, work-study programs, or scholarships. Grants, scholarships, and work-study do not have to be paid back, but loans do. Merit-based aid is offered to students based on outstanding academic achievement or special talents. Sources of aid include federal and state governments, private foundations and organizations, corporations, and the postsecondary institution itself.
Finanical aid and college admissions are separate processes. Students must apply and meet deadlines for each process. However, priority consideration for merit-based scholarships often requires earlier application for admission. For example, the regular application deadline for the University of Maryland at College Park is January 20, but students interested in scholarships and special programs must apply by November 1.
Private colleges are not always more expensive than public colleges. Financial need is calculated based on the cost of attendance at a particular school and the amount the family is expected to contribute as determined by their income and savings. Although financial need would be greater at a more expensive school, private colleges often have more flexibility to meet that need due to large endowments.
Out-of-state colleges are not always more expensive than Maryland colleges. Maryland is a member of the Academic Common Market, a consortium of 16 southern states that allow non-residents to enroll in specific degree programs at in-state tuition rates if an academic program is not offered in the student’s home state.
All students should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), regardless of family income. With this one application, students can apply for financial aid at multiple colleges and from multiple funding sources, including federal, state, institutional and private providers. Students should submit the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1 of their senior year. Remember, the “F” in FAFSA stands for free. Never pay to file the FAFSA. Visit our FAFSA page for more information.
Some colleges require students to complete the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE®, the financial aid application service of the College Board. PROFILE is an online application that collects information used by certain colleges and scholarship programs to award institutional aid funds. (All federal funds are awarded based on the FAFSA). PROFILE charges an initial fee as well as fees for additional reports. Students do not need to complete the CSS unless it is required by the college to which they are applying.
Finding scholarship money takes time and effort. Begin with online scholarship search tools, such as Fastweb. Check in regularly with the school counseling center for updates on local scholarships. Sign up to receive the WCPS scholarship newsletter. Find out if your employer or service organization offers scholarships. Keep track of scholarship deadlines and requirements, such as essays. Contact the college’s financial aid office or review their website to see if the school offers specialty scholarships that require separate application.
In addition to scholarships, grants, and loans, there are many other ways to defray the cost of postsecondary education:
· Earn college credits in high school by taking AP, IB, and dual enrollment courses and passing the required exams.
· Take summer school and mini-semester classes in college so you can graduate early.
· Work part-time during the school year and full time during the summer.
· Participate in a Cooperative Education program.
· Receive free housing (and sometimes a stipend) by serving as a dormitory Resident Assistant (RA).
· Consider ROTC or Americorps programs.
· Earn an appointment to a military academy and receive a free college education.
· Begin at a community college and transfer to complete a bachelor’s degree.
· Begin saving early with a 529 plan or ROTH IRA.