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Most families pay for college using a combination of savings, income, and financial aid. To be considered for financial aid, your child has to apply for it.

There are four main types of financial aid: grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study programs. Financial aid can come from the federal or state government, the college, or private organizations.

Fast Facts

  • Most full-time college students receive some kind of financial aid.
  • The most important step in applying for financial aid is filling out the FAFSA. Your child may also have to fill out other forms, such as individual colleges’ financial aid applications.
  • Applying for financial aid isn't the same as applying for admission to college. The financial aid application process usually has its own forms, deadlines, and requirements.
  • Don't wait for your child to be admitted to a college before applying for financial aid.

Look Into Scholarships and Grants

Grants and scholarships are types of financial aid that your child doesn't have to pay back (unlike loans, which they do have to pay back). For that reason, they’re called "gift aid." Gift aid can come from the government (federal and state), colleges, and private organizations. Scholarships from private organizations are sometimes called outside scholarships because they're not part of a college's financial aid offer.

The terms "scholarship" and "grant" are often used interchangeably, but there are usually differences between these two forms of aid. Most grants are need-based, and most scholarships are merit-based.

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

The FAFSA is the form you need to fill out to apply for federal and state grants, loans, and work-study funds to help you pay for your child's college tuition. The form asks questions about your family's financial status to determine the amount of aid you qualify for. You must submit a FAFSA to receive any federal aid.

You can submit your FAFSA between October 1 and June 30 each year. However, each state and college may have their own, earlier deadlines, so be sure to add those to your calendar.

Read More About It
Scholarship Search
The Basics on Grants and Scholarships
How to Complete the FAFSA

Know Your College Loan Options

Many students and/or parents borrow money to help pay for college when their income, savings, and grants and scholarships don’t cover college costs. If you’re careful to choose the right loan, borrowing for college can be a smart decision.

Remember that all loans have to be paid back with interest, unlike gift aid. However, with need-based federal loans, the government pays the interest while the student is in college. These are called subsidized loans. With unsubsidized loans, the borrower is responsible for paying the interest both before and after graduation.

Most federal loans are for students, but there’s also a federal loan specifically for parents, called the PLUS loan, that can help pay college costs.

Read More About It
Types of College Loans
Borrowing: The Parent's Role

Understand Financial Aid Awards

After your child applies for financial aid and is accepted by a college, they should receive a separate financial aid award letter from the college explaining the financial aid award, or package, the institution is offering.

The package usually includes scholarships and grants, loans, and in some cases, a work-study program. It gives you an overview of all the aid your child will receive from the college and from federal and state sources, but not outside scholarships.

Sit down with your child and compare all the financial aid offers they've received. This will help them choose a college that’s the best all-around fit for them—academically, socially, and financially.

Read More About It
Your Financial Aid Award Explained
Comparing Financial Aid Awards

Quick Calendar

Spring of junior year

  • Start researching scholarships online at BigFuture’s Scholarship Search.

Summer of senior year

  • Find out your real costs for each college by using each school's net price calculator.
  • Gather your tax records and financial aid documents to prepare for filling out the FAFSA.
  • Go to fafsa.ed.gov and get your and your child’s FSA IDs (you’ll each need your own). You won’t need this until you fill out the FAFSA, but it's fine to get it early.

Fall of senior year

  • Help your child find and apply for scholarships. They can ask their school counselor and use online scholarship searches to find scholarships to apply for. Then help them get the scholarship applications and understand application deadlines.
  • Fill out the FAFSA beginning October 1.
  • If your child needs to submit the CSS Profile to a college or scholarship program, find out the college or program's priority financial aid deadline and submit the Profile by then.

Winter of senior year

  • Have your child contact the financial aid offices at the colleges they’re interested in to find out if there are any additional forms students need to submit to apply for aid.
  • Make sure your child completes and submits all necessary financial aid applications—the ones that their colleges and outside scholarship programs require—by their deadlines.

Spring of senior year

  • Help your child review their financial aid letters. Compare the offers and make a decision. The letters will explain how to accept an offer and tell you when you need to respond by.

Frequently Asked Questions