Applying for college can feel like entering the unknown: Not only do you not know which school you’ll attend in a year, you also don’t know how much you’ll be paying in tuition. Because the sticker price (aka the published tuition) is often different than what students end up paying after financial aid and scholarships, students generally don’t know how much they might pay for their dream school until they receive their financial aid offer.
That’s why a big question on the minds of parents and students alike is: How much financial aid will we qualify for? You won’t know the exact details until you start receiving award letters, but understanding your eligibility for financial aid, and how to qualify for it, can help you understand your options—and maybe even maximize your award, too.
Am I eligible for federal aid?
The government has a set of criteria to determine who is eligible for financial aid. In addition to demonstrating financial need, you must:
- Be a US citizen or eligible noncitizen.
- Have a valid Social Security number.
- Be registered with Selective Service if you are male (this is required by law for all males between the ages of 18 and 25).
- Show that you’re eligible for a college or career school program, for example with a GED or high school diploma.
To receive (and continue to receive) funds, you must be enrolled or accepted as a degree-pursuing student in an eligible school or program, stay enrolled at least half-time, and maintain satisfactory progress towards your degree (each school has its own set of standards for this).
In some situations, like for students with intellectual disabilities or with a criminal conviction, there may be additional requirements.
How to qualify for federal student aid
If you meet the eligibility requirements, the next step is demonstrating financial need. The key to this process is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which colleges and universities use to calculate how much student aid you are eligible for. Schools use the information from the FAFSA to determine eligibility for grants, scholarships, work-study awards, state and institutional aid, and federal student loans.
Demonstrating financial need is anchored on financial information from two years earlier and is calculated by subtracting your Cost of Attendance (COA) from your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). For example, for the 2022–23 school year, you’ll need to provide tax returns from 2020. Because a lot can happen in two years, you can follow up your FAFSA application with emails to the financial aid offices of the schools you’ve applied to detailing any new financial information that may impact your aid (e.g., parent losing a job, medical bills).
How to maximize your chances for getting enough financial aid
For the best chances at receiving the most aid, apply early and cast a wide net. Some schools award funds on a first-come, first-served basis. So even though the deadline may not be until spring, it’s important to fill out the FAFSA as soon as it becomes available (October 1 of each year) and submit it promptly. You don’t need to know where you’re applying to submit the FAFSA. Just list any schools you are considering. If you don’t apply to them, you can take them off your list and add new ones in their place. It’s also a good idea to apply to several schools, including private schools. Though private schools typically have higher tuition than public schools, they may be able to offer more generous aid packages.
You may also need to complete the CSS Profile®, which is an online application used to determine eligibility for non-federal financial aid at nearly 250 colleges. Like the FAFSA, you should aim to complete it as soon as you can after it becomes available on October 1. Also like the FAFSA, you do not need to have a finalized list of schools to send the CSS Profile too. Choose the schools that are likely on your list and add to them later if you need to.
The FAFSA is free to file. The CSS Profile has a fee: $25 for each application and $16 for each report you send. Families who have an adjusted gross income under $100,000 can apply for a fee waiver. You should also continue researching and applying for private scholarships since they are free money you don’t have to pay back. Keep in mind, though, that scholarships may affect your financial aid package. If you receive more than $300 in scholarship money, let your financial aid office know.
What happens next?
After you’ve completed the FAFSA and the CSS Profile (if needed), applied to schools, and received acceptances, you’ll receive financial aid award letters. Compare your award letters to see side-by-side what different schools will cost you, and what you’ll still need to cover for each one. Scholarships often have rolling deadlines, so you can continue to apply for scholarships before and during college.
If you’re surprised by your aid package, and believe you should have qualified for more, you can try to appeal your award. If you didn’t get enough in financial aid, there are options to help you fill in the gaps, including scholarships and private student loans.