Whew! Stay calm and set your eyes on a valuable education. We’ll help you break down the process of paying for a college education.
So you’ve written your essays, sent in your apps, and even gotten some acceptances… It seems like the hardest part is over with and you’re rightfully feeling a huge sense of relief! That is, of course, until the enrollment paperwork starts rolling in and you see those crazy 5 digit numbers with the $ sign in front and the word “tuition” written right next to it. It seems like a typo, but you know it’s not.
Panic sets in.
We know that feeling. We’ve been there.
At Verto, we want you to know that you’re not in this alone. We believe that high-quality education can be affordable and accessible for all students. That’s why we’re sharing our guide on all-things College Financial Aid to break the process down plainly and simply, step by step.
Keep an out for 🔥’s: Verto’s hot tips you might not find elsewhere!
Paperwork first! When completing the FAFSA, make sure you’ve got all your documents and family income information on hand.
STEP 1: Fill out the FAFSA
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is a federal government form that is used to determine your “expected family contribution” and eligibility for government financial aid such as grants and low-interest loans.
This is calculated by looking at information like your family’s income, assets, and benefits as well as factors such as family size, number of children in college, and more.
🔥 Many families believe that if they fall into a certain income bracket, they’re ineligible to receive aid. This is a common myth, as all families are actually eligible to receive up to $5,500 of a low-interest government loan regardless of their income or expected contribution. Outside of that loan, each family’s financial situation is judged holistically so it is worthwhile for all families to apply!
As a result of your FAFSA, the government might offer a grant (money that the government will pay towards your education that you DON’T need to pay back) and/or loans (money that the government is loaning you at a fixed interest rate that you DO need to pay back after you graduate).
The FAFSA can also qualify you for work-study which makes it easy to find a student job on campus. These are part-time job openings at your university that are reserved for students with work-study. The idea here is that you can work to earn some money to use towards your remaining tuition balance, to cover non-tuition expenses, or to save to pay off your loans.
🔥 Find a relaxed work-study job where you can get your schoolwork done at the same time! This could be working at the front desk at the library, proctoring exams, or being a receptionist in a dorm.
In addition to determining your government aid, the FAFSA is also used by universities to help them decide how much aid they should give you from their own funds. (These will always be in the form of grants, which you can consider as an amount deducted from your tuition). This aid can come from various scholarship and grant programs (often through alumni donations) and merit-based awards.
🔥 Submit your FAFSA, ASAP: deadlines may vary for each college so better to get it done early. Some types of aid, like grants in some states, are finite and will be distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis. Applying early also leaves plenty of time for financial aid offices to request any additional documentation and correct any mistakes. Plus, you may receive a finalized offer earlier and have more time to consider your options.
🔥 The IRS data retrieval tool can help streamline the process of filling out your FAFSA by automatically syncing data from your federal tax return.
🔥 Have your documents ready to go. Check out The National Association of Student Financial Administrators checklist of everything you’ll need to have on hand before filing the FAFSA.
🔥 Certain assets like savings accounts may make you less eligible for aid than say, an asset like homeownership. Consider consulting a financial planner early to make decisions that will maximize your eligibility for financial aid.
Universities can offer additional money to help you pay your tuition and life expenses while attending their institutions.
STEP 2: Check-in with the Universities
As we mentioned, the FAFSA helps schools know how much of their own aid they should offer a student. The schools use a basic equation of COA (Cost of Attendance) – EFC (Estimated Financial Contribution, which is determined by FAFSA) = EFN (Estimated Financial Need).
As a result, schools will offer institutional grants, or money given by the college directly, to help you cover the rest of tuition.
Some schools – mostly private colleges – require a supplemental form in addition to the FAFSA, called the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSSP) to determine how much to give from their own financial aid funds. Be sure to check ahead of time if this is required by your schools of interest because it is more detailed than the FAFSA and can be time-consuming to complete!
In addition to need-based financial aid offered by the school, many schools offer merit-based awards and other scholarships. Merit-based awards are scholarships given to applicants who demonstrate high-achievement through indicators such as high grades, great test scores, or impressive extracurricular activities.
At some universities, applicants are automatically considered for merit-based awards when they apply. At other schools, applicants might be invited to apply or they might need to seek out these awards and apply on their own.
🔥 Do some perusing on the school’s financial aid site to see their different merit and scholarship offerings. Some schools might even offer scholarships based on your unique interests or intended major, so be sure to check in with your major department or ask a financial aid officer!
🔥 You can appeal if a university’s aid package doesn’t meet your needs. It is possible to try to negotiate a better award with the financial aid office, especially if something has changed in your financial situation or if you receive a better package from another equally competitive school. Universities want their enrollment rates to be high so they may be motivated to try to get you a better package and secure your enrollment. Ask your college counselor to help you navigate this process so that it’s done strategically and respectfully. This article offers some insight into how to write a letter of appeal.
Sometimes you just have to reach out to new opportunities! It never hurts to try for a scholarship opportunity.
STEP 3: Look for Outside Aid
In addition to federal and university financial aid, there are billions of dollars of funding available through private institutions; you just have to find the opportunities and apply! You can search for scholarships on sites such as Scholarships.com, The College Board, and Fastweb. While there are scholarships aimed at the general public, there are also scholarships that cater to niche groups of applicants. Eligibility can be based on ethnicity, organization affiliation (for you or possibly a relative), talents, relative’s veteran status, overcoming past adversity, and many other factors. You can even find scholarships for your intended major or field of study.
🔥 Outside of online resources, you can utilize your network to see if scholarships are offered from any of your communities or affiliations. For example, if you go to a church/temple/mosque/etc., ask around to see if anyone there knows of scholarships linked to your community or religion.
🔥 You can also try to get involved in leadership or service organizations that offer scholarships such as Rotary International.
Consider something a little outside of the box and what additional cost-saving measures might be in place. For example, how much do you plan to spend on a meal plan? Is it required? How do you want to plan for additional costs or are there scholarships available to help you with this?
STEP 4: Consider Your Options
Now that you know what you’re working with, it’s time to carefully compare the different packages you are offered to understand what options are financially feasible for you and your family.
If you need extra funding to make your dream college a reality, you can consider taking out private loans to cover the remaining cost. It’s important to be realistic about your ability to pay off those loans and think critically about the value of attending that particular school to make a well-thought-out decision.
There are tons of ways to make college more affordable including attending a school in-state, transferring in from a community college or lower-cost university, or earning transferable course credits before attending.
We might be biased, but our favorite way to reduce the cost and increase the impact of a college education is through an incredible semester with Verto Education.
While all of our semesters are designed to be affordable, we are thrilled to offer an Opportunity Grant which can reduce the cost of our Latin America and Hawaii semesters to as low as 5k. When coupled with federal financial aid, the semesters can even be as low as $2,000!
We have designed our grant to cater to all applicants, including a tier of students and families in a higher income bracket that is often overlooked by federal and university financial aid. Our Opportunity Grant can be double or triple what a maximum federal Pell Grant would offer per semester and is accessible to families who would typically be considered ineligible. (You can learn more about the Opportunity Grant here and our commitment to affordability and accessibility here).
Families are invited to work with Verto’s dedicated admissions counselors along with Stephanie Collens, our Director of Student Financial Services, to understand what aid they qualify for and create a payment plan that feels manageable and comfortable. As with all aspects of a Verto education, we provide one-on-one, undivided attention to all students and families and personalize our counseling to make the highest quality education accessible to you.
🔥 The earlier you apply to Verto, the more time you will have to plan ahead! With typical campus semesters, students apply from October-December, receive responses around March, and have to make a decision about where they will attend by May 1st. With Verto, admissions are done on a rolling basis so you will have plenty of time to understand your package and figure out how to make your semester financially feasible.
It’s time to take stock of the options available to you and come up with a gameplan.
STEP 5: Stay on Top of Your Game
Once your decision has been made and you’ve outlined a game plan for financing your college experience, we encourage you to think ahead in order to make your transition into post-college life as seamless as possible.
If you have taken out student loans, make sure you’re aware of when you will be required to start paying off those loans. For government loans offered through the FAFSA, students typically have a grace period of 6 months after graduation before they are expected to begin making regular monthly payments.
🔥 It’s important to consider whether your loans are subsidized or unsubsidized. Subsidized loans don’t accumulate interest while you are still in school, whereas unsubsidized loans do. This would mean that, if possible, it would be ideal to try to make payments towards your unsubsidized loans while you’re still in school so that you can avoid accumulating interest.
🔥 It can be helpful to try to save up some money while you’re in college to potentially use towards your monthly payments, in case you’re not able to secure a job within 6 months of graduation.
You will choose a repayment plan with your loan provider in order to figure out your expected monthly payment amount. These amounts are usually quite manageable but if not, you can always reach out to your provider to learn about options for temporarily postponing payments.
🔥 In general, it is recommended to make payments towards loans with the highest interest rates first so that you can reduce how much the amount grows over time. Additionally, paying a little extra each month when possible can help you reduce your balance and reduce the overall cost of your loan. Contact your loan service provider or a financial advisor to discuss these options.
Last but not least, keep your eyes peeled for different ways to secure scholarships (which you can often still apply to even once enrolled) or reduce your financial burden.
For example, depending on your income, you and your family could be eligible to receive a refund via tax credits for up to $4,000 for your education fees. Expenses covered under the tax deduction can include anything related to coursework including tuition, books, supplies, and equipment. Look into the American Opportunity Tax Credit, Lifetime Learning Tax Credit, and Student Loan Interest Deduction, or speak with your CPA to learn more.
You may be wanting to jump out of your seat! But stay calm, millions of students get through this process every year.
Step 6: Stay Calm
We know we just threw a ton of information at you that can feel super overwhelming at first.
Keep in mind, though, that there have been millions of students and families that have tackled this before, and you absolutely can too.
Verto’s Director for Student Financial Services, Stephanie Collens, shares:
“This can feel like an intimidating experience but the key is to tackle each task step by step. To students, you are masters of researching on the internet, so put that amazing skillset to use! There are tons of guides and resources out there. You’re not alone and you are beyond capable!”
At Verto Education, we want to help students put their best foot forward when it comes to success in college and beyond. We’d love to chat if you want to learn more about how we can make an epic start to college possible for you.