Financial Aid for Students: How to Pay for College

Learn how to get financial aid with school loans, scholarships and more

If you’re planning to go to college, you probably have a lot of questions about how to get financial aid, the types of financial aid available and the role that school loans play in helping you meet your educational goals. It’s important to make informed decisions about how to pay for college, so talk to your school’s financial aid office or one of our Educational Finance Specialists to get a clearer picture of what types of financial aid are best for you. In the meantime, you can use this guide to help you understand the financial aid process.

Calculate your college costs first

Before you start thinking about how to pay for college, it is important to have an idea of how much it may cost. The first step in gathering financial aid information is to estimate how much it costs to attend the school of your choice. Some important costs to remember include:

  • Tuition.
  • Room and board.
  • Fees.
  • Books and course materials.
  • Supplies.
  • Transportation.

Many schools host calculators that can help you estimate your college costs, but it is also important to speak with the school’s financial aid office to get an estimate based on your family’s individual situation. This will give you a better idea about the real cost of college, as well as the types of financial aid available for students outside of school loans. Some examples include campus-based aid like work-study programs, grants or scholarships.

Apply for the FAFSA as early as possible

Wondering how to get financial aid? The first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. It is an application form used by the U.S. Department of Education to determine how much a family can afford to contribute to a student’s college education. While it does not take outside sources such as student loans into account, the FAFSA is extremely important because:

  • It tells students how much financial aid is available to them through federal student loans, grants and scholarships.
  • It tells families their expected family contribution (EFC) to a student’s education costs.
  • It tells schools how much federal financial aid a student is qualified for, which helps the school determine how much campus-based aid the student may need.

Students should begin applying for the FAFSA after January 1 if they plan on attending school in the fall. Because the FAFSA helps schools determine which students are eligible for grants and scholarships, turning in your FAFSA early could increase your chances of receiving these awards. Be aware that some schools require additional paperwork, so be sure to contact your school for information about forms and deadlines.

How the FAFSA determines financial aid for students

When you complete and submit your FAFSA, it will generate a Student Aid Report, or SAR, that will be sent both to you and to the schools you list on your FAFSA and will outline your EFC. Schools will use your SAR and EFC to compose a financial aid award letter that outlines the amount and types of financial aid that you are eligible for. Depending on your situation, this may include grants, scholarships, work-study and federal loans. Check out our FAFSA & Financial Aid guide for more details about applying for the FAFSA, financial aid options for students and understanding a financial aid package.

Understanding federal school loans in your award letter

You may notice your award letter includes federal and even private student loan options. However, it’s important to note that these are suggested loans you may have qualified for as a potential means to cover the remaining cost of your education. Examine the rates and repayment terms to decide which option is best for your financial situation. If you are a first-time borrower of federal student loans, you'll need to complete Entrance Counseling. This federal requirement provides you with federal student loan information, such as a loan overview explaining your borrower rights, responsibilities, and consequences of delinquency and default. Usually you can complete this online, but check with your financial aid office for instructions. It’s important to understand these responsibilities for private loans as well, but typically there is not a requirement for Entrance Counseling.

Research and apply for additional grants and scholarships

In addition to applying for the FAFSA, you should also take time to research and apply for scholarships and grants from third-party sources. Unlike federal or private student loans, these types of financial aid do not have to be paid back – making them “free money” that can help you reduce the cost of school. While the FAFSA will help you apply for campus-based scholarships, Peterson's scholarship search can help you find opportunities based on your major, background and interests. But don’t stop there – local and regional businesses, professional groups and civic organizations frequently sponsor scholarships, so be sure to research and apply for them as well.

Complete your financial aid picture with private student loans

After you have applied for grants, scholarships and federal school loans, take another look at the financial aid packages offered by your schools of choice. Private student loans, like the Citizens Bank Student Loan™, can help you complete your financial aid picture and reach your education goals. If you’re interested in applying for an education loan or have questions about how to get additional financial aid to pay for college, contact one of our Education Finance Specialists today.

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