Even after you've done everything right, from cramming for exams to preparing for standardized tests, your work is not complete. You still need to fund the next step: a college education. Unfortunately, top-percentile academic performance and well-rounded extracurricular activities don't ensure enrollment at an applicant's dream school. The tuition, room, and board must also be paid.
Paying for college can be a challenge for many families. In 2014-15 academic year, 86% of new students at four-year colleges received financial aid.1 The good news is that lack of funds no longer has to get in the way of a bright future. The not-so-good news is that money from federal student loans isn't free. However, there are ways to better finance your education that can help ease the financial burden.
Consider the following five steps to see if your need for a federal loan can be reduced or even eliminated. These basics are recommended, not mandatory, prerequisites before you complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Step 1: Apply for scholarships
Most college scholarships are based on achievement. Think about your academic, athletic, and extracurricular strengths. What are you really great at? What are you passionate about? Try some of the online scholarship portals such as jumpstart-scholarship.net or scholarships.com. With a little research, just about anyone can find some type of scholarship opportunity.
Step 2: Consider grants
Grants are based on need, but unlike loans, they don't need to be repaid. Grants and scholarships can come from the federal government, your state government, your college or career school, or a private or nonprofit organization. Do your research on sites such as grants.gov and apply for any grants you might be eligible for.
Step 3: Evaluate your cash flow
A federal student loan will typically cover tuition, room, board, textbooks, and other qualifying academic expenses. But you'll still need cash for clothing, transportation, and miscellaneous items. Look into opportunities that might exist on campus (think library, administrative work, or tutoring) and the extra income you could generate even from working part-time.
Step 4: Reach out for employer assistance
Many employers want to support educational efforts, especially if they feel that you'll be an asset to their business after you graduate. If you're able to enter the workforce and attend school part time, many employers will offer to reimburse you for some of your tuition expenses. It doesn't hurt to ask!
Step 5: Be selective about your dream school
Even if you toured a university campus and fell in love, evaluate the right time to attend your dream school. For example, expensive institutions might not make sense for all undergraduates. Instead, consider completing two years at a community college that will allow you to finish your basic courses with minimal expense. A community college can also be a frugal foundation for those who remain undecided about their college major.
It's tempting to complete the FAFSA right away, but a little patience and considering these steps can pay off. Before you know it, you'll be roaming a college campus as a freshman for the fall semester.