FAFSA

What is FAFSA?

Federal Student Aid is the governing body responsible for managing the student financial assistance programs. These programs provide grants, loans, and work-study funds to students attending college or career school. FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Do I need to fill it out and why?

Many schools require students to fill out FAFSA in order to receive any financial aid, be it scholarships, grants, or loans. Results of the FAFSA are shared with the colleges and universities of your choosing. Based on your results the university can determine if you qualify for need-based scholarships. Keep in mind, you still have to apply for scholarships on national and local levels as well as college-specific scholarships in order to be considered. In addition to scholarship eligibility, based on your FAFSA results, the Federal Government can determine if you are eligible for grants that you do not have to repay or government-issued student loans. Let's say you do not plan to take loans, have no need for grants, and will not be applying for scholarships, do you still need to fill out FAFSA? Probably. Work-study and campus-housing options can also be impacted by the results of your FAFSA. The large majority of students find that having FAFSA "on file" with their university will make a lot of other financially-rooted processes much easier. For a full-listing of how FAFSA impacts the types of aid you can receive, talk to your high-school's college counselor.

When to fill it out?

Students and parents need to fill out FAFSA, together, before March 1st of the student's senior year of high school. For instance, if a student plans to attend college starting in the autumn of 2013, the FAFSA is due March 1st, 2013. Even if you do not plan to take any funding.

Will it help me?

There is only one way to find out. Most colleges and universities will require students to fill out FAFSA even if they do not plan to receive any financial aid packages. Many scholarship programs require students to have a FAFSA on file, and updated yearly in order to dole out funds. Thousands of scholarships are need based, and that need is determined by your FAFSA results.

Get started with the financial-aid process by visiting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid website. There are several handy tools on the FAFSA website, such as the FAFSA4caster which helps you determine the true cost of the college or university after your family finances are taken in to consideration.

Affordablecolleges.com also provides a great amount of helpful information in their Financial Aid Guide.

Scholarships

The cost of attending college is climbing every year and scholarships are becoming increasingly more competitive. Funding will not come to you, you must go and find it. If you are having a hard time getting started, here is a list of the top five scholarship databases in the United States. Below that, you will see links to Reviews.com's rankings and other resources.

By creating a free account and profile with any of the companies listed above, you will have access to a nation-wide list of scholarships that match your abilities, interest, financial, and ethic background. Here is an unbiased review of each sites' offerings.

In addition to broad-based search engines, talk to the Financial Aid and Scholarship offices of the schools in which you are interested. Have a list of questions ready before you call, such as, are the scholarships renewable for one year only? What are the GPA requirements needed to maintain good standing with the scholarship committee? Does this particular scholarship require community service or volunteer work? Be prepared to explain why you deserve a scholarship, even if they do not ask. You will need to defend why you are the best candidate in your scholarship application essays and in front of review committees. Do not take on scholarships that have unrealistic expectations. For instance, if you know you will be busy with sports and school, carefully consider that scholarship that requires two 150 hour internships.

Most importantly, remember, it is your responsibility to find and apply for scholarships. Look for local, county-wide, academic based, athletic based, service-oriented, national, and international scholarships. Ask your high-school guidance counselor for some resources to get started. There are literally billions of dollars in scholarship funding to be granted and the competition is tough, so apply early, know and understand the deadlines and start applying.

Loan Payoff Calculator

Attending college can be expensive but armed with the knowledge of exactly what college will cost, you can make an informed decision about what university will provide the best education and opportunity for post-college financial freedom.

Taking on loans can be a very large financial commitment. Speaking with anyone between the ages of 22 and 40, you will likely find that the loans "snuck up," or the payments were "much higher than expected." Many college graduates have said that no one really explained what signing on the dotted line meant. Yes, it means you have money to go to college, but what does it mean to you after college? It means that there is no escaping the $200-$1000+ monthly loan payments over the course of the next 30 years. It can also mean that you were able to afford the college education that helped you earn a great job that will develop in to an even better career. Student loans can hurt but they can also provide a lot of essential benefits. It is important to consider all that loans entail. Click here for some quick facts about educational debt in the United States.

For parents, loans can be a necessary-evil but it is extremely important to stress to students how loans can impact their futures. One great way to "break down" the cost of loans is to look at a loan payoff calculator together. Fast-Web, a scholarship aggregator, also has a handy loan-payoff calculator. Remember that loans need to not only cover tuition but all associated costs of a university education.

Lastly, one thing many students fail to consider is the cost per hour of attending college even without factoring interest from the loans. Once your student has some universities in mind, a fun family exercise is to determine the total cost of the college experience including room and board, food, tickets home, entertainment, books, tuition and more. Divide that total figure by the number of credit hours for the year, typically 30 (15 per semester). Assuming most classes are three credit hours students would have three hours of in-class time per week. Semesters are typically 18 weeks, meaning in-class time totals around 54 hours. Calculating a rough-estimate of the cost of each hour of class will take about 15 minutes. However, it should have a lasting impact. Knowing that each hour of class costs far more than 'tuition' itself and can range anywhere between $55 and $200 per hour should make skipping class seem like a poor choice. College is fun. It provides a world of opportunity for academic growth, personal development, and athletic challenge but having a solid understanding of the cost of college is invaluable.