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Last May, I had a handful of college acceptance letters and a decision to make.

Or so I told myself.

The truth was, the decision had been made for me. It had been made the day I received my last financial aid letter, the day I neatly listed the cost of attendance for each school and noticed that there was really only one feasible option.

But even with my one option, I knew I was unbelievably lucky. The average amount of debt a member of the class of 2015 will have to pay back is $35,000, according to Mark Kantrowitz, an expert on financial aid cited in the Wall Street Journal. Somehow, I’d escaped that. Others are not so lucky. Every year, many low-income students have to forgo college because they cannot afford it or decide not to take on burdensome loans. Oftentimes, it is because they do not know that there are other options.

The following is not a complete guide to finances and college, but hopefully, it’ll show that there are options available between “forget about college completely” and “drown in student debt.”

Choosing Colleges

You’re a senior in high school, and you’re trying to decide which applications to work on this coming winter break. (Please don’t do this; finish your applications as early as possible). As you sort through schools, ignore the sticker price and head straight for the financial aid page. The great thing about financial aid is that your ability to receive money is entirely contingent on your family’s finances, not your GPA or resume. You will not have to worry about maintaining a certain GPA throughout college in order to keep receiving money.

On the college’s financial aid policy, you will be checking for three aspects of its financial aid policy.

Full Financial Need– This means that the school will only charge you however much it determines your family can afford according to the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and/or it’s own formula. While this may seem completely arbitrary, many schools will estimate on the spot exactly how much you will have to pay. Look for the school’s EFC (Expected Family Contribution) calculator, which should give you a fairly accurate estimate of how much you will be expected to pay.

No-Loans Policy– The only issue with schools that meet full financial need is that they sometimes include loans as part of your financial aid package. As a result, you should also check to see if your school has a no-loans policy. In that case, your financial aid package should only consist of grants (which you don’t have to pay back) and work-study (which is a staple in most financial aid packages).

Need-Blind– This is not as crucial as the other two characteristics as it will not affect your financial aid package. Instead, it helps you gauge your chances of being admitted. While deciding whether or not to admit you, need-blind schools will not take into account whether or not you can afford their school. Sometimes schools will favor students who they can count on for tuition, but need-blind schools will not do this.

Applying to Colleges

If you need financial aid, you should apply to a wide range of schools so that you may compare financial aid/scholarship packages. Unfortunately, this also means that you will be spending a lot on application fees unless you request fee waivers. If you are using the Common App, you can request fee waivers if you meet one of the indicators listed here here.

If your school does not support the Common App, check their financial aid policy page again to see if they grant waivers. Even if they say they do not offer waivers, email anyways and ask. The worst that will happen is they’ll say no, which may also be an indicator that you won’t get the financial aid you need from them. Alternatively, you may choose to apply to a school without an application fee.

If you have a fairly good idea of what school you’d like to attend and/or you are interested in attending a highly ranked college, you may want to consider applying through Questbridge, which does not have an application fee.The program allows students to rank its partner schools so that they may hopefully be matched to one. If you are matched, you will receive full financial aid.

Financial Aid Applications

If you apply for financial aid, you will need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The most important thing to remember about the FAFSA is that the first “F” stands for “Free,” so if an organization asks you to pay them in order to help you fill it out, they are trying to scam you. The FAFSA is usually due late June, but many colleges require you to fill it out much earlier so that they may calculate your aid package.

Oftentimes, colleges will also ask that you fill out the CSS Profile, which gives a more in-depth view of your finances. There is a $25 fee for the initial application and a $16 fee for each additional application. However, fee waivers are available for low-income students. There is no set deadline for the CSS Profile, but you will need to complete it before you can receive your aid package.

Scholarships

Unlike financial aid, scholarships tend to be offered to anyone, regardless of financial need. Additionally, scholarships offered through colleges sometimes come with certain caveats, requiring students to maintain a certain GPA in order to continue to receive money. If you receive substantial financial aid, there is a good chance that receiving a large outside scholarship will reduce the amount of aid you get.

Scholarships can generally be divided into two categories– scholarships through colleges and outside scholarships.

If you have a good GPA and/or standardized test scores, it is generally pretty easy to find large scholarships from public universities within your state. These scholarships are usually automatically given out on the basis of your academic performance and do not require a lengthy application. Private universities vary in terms of how they give out scholarships. Some will require a special application in addition to your regular application to the college while others will automatically consider you for their scholarships. Those offering scholarships often have separate, earlier deadlines that you should make note of.

Outside scholarships vary in amount given, but in general, the larger the scholarship, the earlier the deadline. Therefore, you should not wait until after you apply to colleges (particularly if you tend to procrastinate) to start looking at scholarship applications.  

Alternative Options

Due to skyrocketing tuition rates, some students find that a four year college is still not feasible even after receiving financial aid and/or scholarships. One major alternative is community college. These are usually much cheaper and will offer the same basic classes that students at four-year institutions take. As a result, a smart financial choice may be to take all of your pre-requisite classes for whatever major you choose and then transfer to a four-year institution for your junior and senior years. Many community colleges offer joint programs with local four-year colleges to facilitate the transfer and to ensure that you receive your credits.

Trade schools are another possible alternative that will still prepare you for a career. Like community colleges, a degree from a trade school will be much cheaper than a bachelor’s degree at a four year institution.

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Low-income students face numerous challenges when it comes to applying to colleges. They may not be able to afford extra SAT prep tutoring or must work instead of participate in a community service project to boost their resume. When navigating the application process, they may come from schools that do not offer financial aid counseling or much counseling in general. However, there are colleges and organizations out there that seek low-income students and want to make higher education affordable for them. With a bit of work, finding an affordable solution to college is not impossible.

Resources

Scholarship Finders:

Fastweb: http://www.fastweb.com/

Niche: https://colleges.niche.com/scholarships/

Scholly: http://myscholly.com/#scholly – Costs $0.99 to download the app

Scholarships:

Pell Grant: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships/pell – Sponsored by the U.S. government

Gates Millenium Scholars: http://www.gmsp.org/

Lists of scholarships for WOC: http://baucemag.com/list-of-undergraduate-and-graduate-scholarships-for-women-of-color/

http://bemoxie.org/scholarships-women-of-color/

List of scholarships for LGBTQ+: http://www.hrc.org/resources/scholarship-database

Find financial aid counselors: https://www.goodcall.com/scholarships/