Paying for a College Education
The FAFSA, financial aid, and the rest
The college search process can be confusing, but figuring out how to pay for college can be just as intimidating. Where do you start?
The starting point is the same for everyone: completing and filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). All students apply for federal student aid through the FAFSA, and colleges use the information from the FAFSA to determine a student’s financial need.
Step-by-step, the online application guides you through the process of applying for aid. You can also print the application and mail it, but keep in mind applying online allows for faster processing.
Step 1. Applying online
After you and your parents or guardians have gathered the necessary paperwork (such as their most recent tax returns), the next step is completing the application at www.fafsa.ed.gov. Filling out the application online takes about an hour. First download a FAFSA worksheet, which will help you assemble your paperwork.
Filing online is popular because:
- Calculations are done for you.
- It’s faster than submitting a paper version.
- It detects any errors so you can fix them before you submit.
- Online help is available if you have any questions.
Step 2. Reviewing your Student Aid Report
After filing the application, you'll receive an email (if you filed electronically) with your SAR, or Student Aid Report. The SAR provides:
- A summary of the information you provided.
- Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC outlines how much your family should pay for your education in the following year.
The SAR should arrive within three to five days of the processing of the FAFSA (or seven to ten days by mail if you haven't supplied an email). Study the SAR and make sure it's correct and complete. This information will be shared with the schools you named on the FAFSA.
Step 3. Comparing your award letters
Schools send financial award letters in the spring. Your award letter will outline the federal student aid and any institutional aid you qualify for.
- Federal aid consists of grants, loans and/or work-study.
- The institution may also provide loans, grants and scholarships from their own funds.
Your job is to study the various offers and decide which is most attractive for you and your family.
Step 4. Filling the gap with scholarships and/or private loans
Most students find a gap between their financial aid offer(s) and the actual cost of school. You and your family may need to explore other financing arrangements including outside scholarships, private student loans or tapping into home equity (borrowing against the value of your home).