Students and parents can find the world of college financial aid to be overwhelming. Even for those who have already been through the process, changes and updates can almost make it feel like they’re starting back at square one. Here are some free online resources to help make the undertaking a bit easier.
The Federal Student Aid Website
Federal Student Aid is an office of the U.S. Department of Education, and its website is the logical first place to start. The site provides detailed guidance on preparing for college, choosing a school, types of aid, who gets aid, applying for aid with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Form, and how to repay loans.
The site offers advice and information for both students and parents, including checklists for academic and financial preparation. Types of aid, including grants, scholarships, work-study jobs, and requirements for becoming and remaining eligible, are detailed. As well as information on filling out the FAFSA, the site provides a link to the FAFSA4caster, which helps you estimate your future eligibility for aid. A section on loan repayment covers such topics as consolidation, deferment, forgiveness, delinquency, and default.
The FAFSA form is available starting on October 1 for the following school year. In order to complete the form, you will need:
- Your Social Security number and your parents’ Social Security numbers if you are a dependent student
- Your driver’s license number if you have one
- Your Alien Registration Number if you are not a U.S. citizen
- Federal tax information or tax returns including IRS W-2 information for you (and your spouse, if you are married), and if you are a dependent student, an IRS 1040 (or applicable foreign return) for your parents
- Records of your untaxed income—including child support, interest income, and veterans benefits—for you and your parents if you are a dependent student
- Information on cash holdings; bank account balances; investments, including stocks, bonds, and real estate (but not the home in which you live); and business and farm assets for you and for your parents if you are a dependent student
There are several questions to answer to determine whether you're a dependent student, including ones regarding your age and marital status.
In order to electronically sign the completed FAFSA, you or your parent (if you're a dependent student) must create an FSA ID, which consists of a user name and password.
If you provide some basic information, the FAFSA4caster will estimate your eligibility for federal student aid. Your estimate will be shown in a College Cost Worksheet that enables you to enter estimated amounts of other student aid and savings that can go toward the cost of higher education.
College Scholarship Websites
It makes sense to find and apply for as many scholarships as you can. Unlike some other forms of financial aid, scholarships don’t have to be repaid. Merit-based scholarships are earned by meeting or exceeding standards set by the scholarship sponsor. Some scholarships may be based on financial need. Other scholarships are geared toward a particular group of people, and some are available because of where you or your parents work or went to school.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop website lists more than 8,000 searchable scholarships, fellowships, grants, and other financial aid opportunities. (It also offers a lot of career-related guidance, including skill and interest assessments, information on job training programs, and a database of job postings.)
This website allows you to search for scholarships, grants, and loans without requiring you to register or log in. It also provides information on higher education-related topics such as application essay writing and the cost of books.
Scholarship America describes itself as the "largest nonprofit, private scholarship organization" in the U.S. The Scholarship America Hub matches you up with applicable scholarships.
Other Helpful Websites
These websites should also prove useful to students and parents.
Finaid—which is affiliated with Fastweb, another scholarship search site—has a wealth of information about financial aid. The easiest way to get started looking for helpful pages is to check out the Quick Links at the bottom of the page, where the very large number of topics is divided into such categories as Loans, Military Aid, Calculators, and Educators.
While this website focuses on 529 college savings plans, it also has a page dedicated to financial aid.