How Your State Could Help You Pay for College

When it comes to paying for college, most of the attention is focused on federal financial aid such as Pell Grants, federal student loans, or the federal work-study program. Some colleges also have financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants which can be layered on top of these to cover more costs, and of course, there are also private scholarships from corporations, community groups, and philanthropic organizations.

But one area that really gets little attention is the amount of state financial aid that is also available. States are very interested in educating their student population, and are often willing to provide substantial amounts of financial assistance, especially for students interested in attending college in-state. Almost every state education agency has at least one grant or scholarship program available to residents, and many have quite a substantial list of student aid programs. Here are some things you can do to learn more about qualifying for additional financial aid in your state:

  • Each state is different: Although federal financial aid is uniform across the country, state financial aid can vary from one state to another. A good way to begin learning about what is available is to contact the department of education, the higher education agency, special education agency or adult education agency in your state. Some states may want the student to attend a public university, while others provide funding for both public and private institutions. In most states, the first step in qualifying for financial aid is to complete the FAFSA, but some states do require students and parents to complete a separate state aid application form in addition to the FAFSA.
  • Watch your deadlines: While the FAFSA deadline can be quite generous, many states have application deadlines which are surprisingly earlier than you might expect. You should be aware of your state’s specific deadlines but, once again, it is always best to apply as soon as possible. Some programs have limited funding available and even though you meet the actual deadline, you might still miss out on funding just because you applied too late. Some states warn that students should apply “as soon as possible after October 1,” as awards are only made until the available funds are depleted.
  • Need-based vs. merit-based: Be aware of how your state makes financial aid decisions — are they based on the academic merits of the student, some type of need-based formula, or a combination of the two? If the awards are merit-based, make sure your student does everything possible in high school to keep up with academic requirements.
  • In state or out of state: Most states, of course, are trying to motivate students to attend colleges within their geographic boundaries, but there are some programs that allow residents of one state to attend college in another state, without having to pay out-of-state tuition. Check with your state, or with colleges you are interested in attending, about any tuition exchange or reciprocity programs, and ask how you can sign up. Be aware that the grant amounts might not be as generous for attending another college in another state. This could have an impact on where the student decides to attend college, and must be discussed as part of the overall selection process.

The bottom line in financial aid is that you need to spread your net far and wide to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. Do your own homework, and don’t listen to rumors other people might be spreading as to whether you qualify for help.

You never know until you know, and  you won’t know for sure until you do your research, file the FAFSA, talk to the college’s financial aid office, and search for scholarships.

Aid doesn’t come in one neat and tidy package. It’s a sloppy mess at times that can get confusing, but it is well worth the effort when you receive that letter or e-mail telling you that part of your college journey is being paid for by someone else. Parents and students need to work together to understand all the intricacies of paying for college.