It’s college application season, when high school seniors around Washington polish their essays, burnish their resumes and study hard in hopes of boosting that GPA just enough. But as students and their families focus on getting into college, they also need to give thought to a problem even more worrisome for some: how to pay for tuition, books, room and board.
Many students – especially those who are the first in their families to apply or go to college – worry they won’t be able to pay yearly costs that for many add up to a majority of their family’s entire income. The price tag scares many qualified students away entirely. It doesn’t need to be that way. Federal, state and private aid is available, but you can’t tap it if you don’t apply.
The first step is filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which is a form required by all universities, community and technical colleges that offer federal student aid. In Washington, the FAFSA is also required to apply for state aid, including the College Bound Scholarship program. The form requires information about the student’s family finances, along with some demographic information.
The FAFSA is online at www.fafsa.gov. The form for the 2013-14 school year is available now, and the clock is ticking. Washington’s public colleges and universities try to meet the financial need of every student, but there isn’t enough money to go around. In order to ensure that they get the aid they qualify for, students must file the FAFSA as soon as possible after Jan. 1. Many colleges and scholarships require the form to be filed by Feb. 1 to make it easier to let students know what their aid package will be by spring, when students are choosing which college to attend.
What happens if you miss the deadline? The state money might dry up before the financial aid officers at your chosen school get to you. Last year some 72,000 students got state need grant money. But more than 26,000 students didn’t, even though they were eligible.
Students who plan to attend community college often get caught in this trap. Because the deadlines for enrolling at two-year colleges are much later, they neglect to apply for financial aid until far too late.
Another mistake families make is waiting until after they have filed their tax returns to file the FAFSA, which requires some information from the tax return. Don’t wait. Go ahead and use an estimate if your family’s taxes aren’t done yet. Financial aid officials at your school will work with you to flesh out the information.
It’s also important to remember that you need to fill out a new FAFSA every year, even if you’re not an incoming freshman. Financial aid officials need to know about any changes in your family’s financial picture.
Once you’ve started on the FAFSA, start some intensive research on the financial aid offered at the school you plan to attend, as well as other scholarships that may be available to you. Many scholarships are narrowly targeted. For example, there may be scholarships just for students who attended your high school, or grew up in your home town, or share an interest in a particular field of study that just happens to be your life ambition. Other examples include scholarships for home-schooled students, the children of migrant farm workers and students interested in the space industry.
In Washington, the best resource for scholarships is www.thewashboard.org, an online portal supported by College Spark Washington, a nonprofit organization devoted to increasing college access and success for Washington students.
Students who register at thewashboard.org fill out a confidential profile, and then the system matches them to scholarships. Every year, thewashboard.org guides students to millions of dollars of scholarship money they didn’t even know existed. In 2012, it offered information on $46 million in scholarships.
So to all of you college-bound students and your families: As you plan for college this winter, remember that there is aid available to help you go to the school of your choice.