How To Get Financial Aid For College

how-to-get-financial-aid-for-college

Students and parents sometimes don’t know where to look for financial aid for college and how to apply. Financial aid can be intimidating because it involves an alphabet soup of acronyms, almost like speaking a new language. However, there are just a few simple steps you must take to get the money you need to pay for college.

Graduation cap with Financial Aid text, on assorted money

To get money to pay for college, file the FAFSA, search for scholarships, look for education tax … [+] benefits, and ask your employer.


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Eligibility for college financial aid can be based on financial need or merit.

Need-Based Financial Aid

To apply for need-based financial aid, file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at fafsa.ed.gov starting on October 1 of the senior year in high school and annually thereafter. The FAFSA provides access to financial aid from the federal and state government, as well as most colleges. The financial aid can include grants, student employment and student loans.

Some colleges require supplemental forms, such as the CSS Profile from the College Board, for awarding their own financial aid funds.

Compare financial aid award letters using the net price. The net price is the difference between total college costs (e.g., tuition, fees, room and board, textbooks and transportation) and gift aid (e.g., grants and scholarships). This discounted sticker price is the amount you will have to pay using your savings, contributions from income and student loans.

If your ability to pay for college has been affected by special circumstances, such as job loss or other changes in income in the last two years or any differences from the typical family financial situation, appeal for more financial aid.

Current and former foster youth can get an Education and Training Voucher (ETV) worth up to $5,000 per year through the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independent Program. Find your state ETV coordinator in the list of state resources on childwelfare.gov.

Merit-Based Financial Aid

Merit-based aid includes scholarships. To find scholarships, use a free scholarship matching service, such as Fastweb.com or the College Board’s Big Future. Answer the optional questions, not just the required questions, to increase the number of scholarships you find. Also look for scholarship listing books in the local public library or bookstore, but check the copyright date to make sure it isn’t too old to be useful. Small local scholarships may also be posted on bulletin boards outside the school counselor’s office and the college financial aid office.

Start searching ASAP, as there are scholarships with deadlines throughout the year. There are also scholarships available to students in younger grades, not just high school seniors, and there are some scholarships you can only win after you are already enrolled in college.

Apply to every scholarship for which you are eligible to increase your chances of winning one.

Beware of scholarship scams, which charge a fee to search for scholarships or to apply for scholarships.

Financial Aid from the IRS

You can also qualify for some financial aid by filing your federal income tax return. Education tax benefits include the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), Lifetime Learning Tax Credit (LLTC) and Student Loan Interest Deduction.

  • The AOTC provides a partially-refundable tax credit worth up to $2,500 based on amounts paid for tuition and textbooks. Eligibility for the AOTC is limited to four years of postsecondary education per student.
  • The LLTC isn’t as valuable as the AOTC, but it can be claimed for an unlimited number of years.
  • The Student Loan Interest Deduction is an above-the-line exclusion from income for up to $2,500 in interest paid on federal and private student loans.
  • There are also college savings plans, such as 529 Plans, Prepaid Tuition Plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, which allow earnings to grow on a tax-deferred basis and to be entirely tax-free if used to pay for qualified higher education expenses. Some states provide a state income tax credit or deduction based on contributions to the state’s 529 plan.

Read IRS Publication 970 for additional details.

Financial Aid from Your Employer

Many employers provide college financial aid for their employees and their dependents. Check with your employer’s HR office to see what’s available.  

Employers can provide up to $5,250 in tax-free employer-paid educational assistance each year. This can include payments of tuition and student loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs).

The U.S. Armed Forces may provide money for college through ROTC scholarships, GI Bill benefits and student loan repayment programs.

You can earn an education award for volunteering through the AmeriCorps program.

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