4 Tips for Cutting Your College Costs with Financial Aid

While Valentine’s Day may get all the fame in February, the year’s shortest month is loaded with other noteworthy events and observations. And among them, one takes on special significance for students getting ready to go to college or career school — as well as for their parents who are preparing to pay for their higher education. Each February, many Americans participate in Financial Aid Awareness Month, an observance that sees educators, school counselors, and financial aid advisors in particular shine a spotlight on the resources available to students and parents to help them pay for post-secondary education.

The rising costs of college

As most students who are considering college (and their parents planning to pay for it) are aware, college costs have been rising for decades. In fact, a look back shows that the average tuition at in-state, public U.S. universities in 2004 was under $5,000 per year.

Today, according to the latest data from The College Board, the average cost for tuition and fees at in-state, public, four-year colleges in the U.S. for the 2023-24 school year has topped $11,000 — a price that doesn’t include common additional expenses such as room, board, and books. And of course, the cost is substantially higher for those who choose private and/or out-of-state schools.

3 main types of financial aid

Fortunately, funds are available in the form of financial aid to help students and parents pay for college. Just what is financial aid? It’s money that can be used to cover the expenses of higher education, such as tuition, fees, room, board, books, and transportation.

Financial aid falls into three primary categories:

  • Free money: Typically distributed in the form of scholarships and grants, this is financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid. Grants are often provided based on financial need, while scholarships can be awarded based on academic (or other) merits, athletic skills, financial need, hobbies, interests, affiliations, and other qualifying criteria.
  • Earned money: Also known as work-study funds, this is money that is earned via working a part-time job as part of the Federal Work-Study program. Typically administered by the school being attended, these jobs are open to undergraduate and graduate students in financial need, and they often include work related to a student’s field of study and/or community service work.
  • Borrowed money: This category includes student loans, which provide education-devoted funds that must be paid back with interest. Federal student loans are provided to qualifying students by the federal government, often with better rates, terms, and benefits than those available through banks or other private sources.

4 tips for finding financial aid

Wondering how to receive financial aid? Consider taking these four steps to see what types of free, earned, and/or borrowed money might be available to help you cover the costs of your higher-education needs:

  1. Complete a FAFSA form — As the name implies, there is no charge for students to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form — and for most students seeking financial aid, this is a great first step. In most cases, completing the form only takes about an hour. And by doing so, students from families of any income level can discover whether they may be eligible for a broad array of federal, state, and school-specific financial aid programs. This includes scholarships, grants, work-study funds, and student loans.
  • Seek out scholarships — Scholarships are awarded by a lengthy list of schools, companies, employers, individuals, groups, and organizations nationwide. And they provide money for higher education free of charge, with no repayment required. Each year, thousands of different scholarships are available to students, and research is the key to finding and securing them. Students in need of funding for college or career school should track down and apply for any and all scholarships that may be available to them, as they can provide substantial help covering the costs of postsecondary education.
  • Investigate work-study opportunities — Many colleges and universities throughout the U.S. participate in the Federal Work-Study program, and participating schools typically administer their own employment opportunities under the program. Students who are interested in work-study jobs can contact their school of choice’s financial aid office to see if the school participates, and if so, what kinds of work-study jobs might be available to them.

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