With the cost of college continuing to rise every year, it’s never too soon to start looking for ways to begin securing aid for college. For too many people, college seems to sneak up on them and they find themselves with few options other than to keep taking out loans. While it’s difficult to avoid loans completely, taking steps early on to secure different types of aid for college may enable you to keep your student debt at a manageable level.
Families need to consider how they are going to pay for college long before their student is a senior in high school and they need to talk about it as a family. Both students and parents need to be in on this conversation because it’s going to take some teamwork and cooperation to financially prepare for college.
Here are a few sources of aid for college that can be a big help, but require some prior planning and action to secure them:
Merit Aid – Many colleges offer this to their most academically qualified applicants. The amount can be hundreds to thousands of dollars per year depending on the school and the applicant. This aid for college is a gift, so it doesn’t have to be repaid. But here’s the catch — you’ve got to work hard in school and get good grades not just for one year, but throughout all of high school. It takes commitment and effort to qualify for this kind of aid, but it is some of the most financially significant aid for college you can get. If you’d like to know which colleges offer this type of aid, you might want to check out meritaid.com.
Scholarships - There are tons of scholarships out there, but getting them takes some initiative. Since they won’t come looking for you, you have to search for this type of aid for college. There are search engines and books where you can find them listed. There are also probably quite a few in your school’s counseling office – myUsearch even offers one! The key is being consistent in searching and applying for these scholarships. It’s going to take time, but the time you take could pay off in a big way. (Hint: If you want to be a stronger candidate for scholarships, get involved in your community and don’t be afraid to take on new challenges.)
College savings plans - These help you accumulate some self-funded aid for college. There are different types of these, such as a 529 plan that may be offered by your state. It would be wise to talk to your banker or a financial expert to find out which one is right for your family. Of course, these are most effective when you have been adding to them for a long time, so the sooner you get on board with one of these, the better. If you don’t really have the resources to make these work for you, there is still value in simply opening a savings account and adding to it when you can. (Putting away a certain percentage of birthday money, etc. is a good way to keep this account growing.)
Once you get to senior year in high school, there are a few other things you can do to secure the most aid for college possible.
- Request your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) PINs in early Fall. These serve as the electronic signature for student and parent when they submit the FAFSA. Not having one of these will delay your submission and could mean more loans.
- File the FAFSA as soon after January 1st as possible. The sooner you file the FAFSA, the better your chances of receiving gift aid such as grants as part of your financial aid package.
- Get your taxes done early. You can file the FAFSA without this by just estimating based on the previous year, but you will need to update it as soon as you get your taxes, so don’t delay.
- Make sure you have filled out all the financial aid forms required by the college well before the deadline. Many schools only require the FAFSA, but others also require the CSS Profile form or their own financial aid form. Make sure you check the financial aid website of each school to be certain you have submitted everything they need.
- Be diligent about checking for new scholarships. Make it a habit to check weekly for new scholarships that may have come into your school’s counseling office.
Whatever you do, don’t let college – and its costs – sneak up on you. Start now and the aid for college you receive will make all your work and preparation worthwhile.