Exploring the Best Options for College Financial Aid

Oct 26, 2018

Applying for financial aid

With recent data indicating that college tuition for today’s students may be nearly three times that of their parents, it helps to remember that there is also an abundance of scholarships, grants, loans and other forms of financial aid that can greatly lesson the financial burden on families. The U.S. Department of Education alone awards more than $120 billion a year in funds and loans for higher education, and billions more are available from a variety of resources such as state governments, endowments and private organizations. Make sure you’re not losing out with this simple approach to maximizing college financial assistance:

Fill out the FAFSA first: Taking thirty minutes to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) online is an important first step to obtaining funds for college for several reasons. One, the federal government is the largest provider of financial aid for college in the nation. Completing the FAFSA allows you to be considered for the highest amount of assistance in grants, scholarships, work-study programs and loans. In addition to tuition and fees, federal funds can be used to cover a wide range of costs including room and board, books and supplies, transportation and miscellaneous personal expenses. Secondly, the state of California as well as many colleges and universities use FAFSA to evaluate eligibility for their financial assistance programs. Furthermore, even students and families that do not qualify for need-based federal aid may benefit from completing the FAFSA, since it can give them access to federal loans, which often have fixed-interest rates and may be more competitive than private loans.

In their 2016 (and still relevant) article “3 Reasons You Should Fill Out the FAFSA-No Matter How Rich You Are,” Money magazine points out that even families earning more than $200,000 may be eligible for need-based aid at certain private colleges. This same article also asserts that completing the FAFSA form may even give some students an edge in admissions at certain schools, since it’s an indication to admissions officers that the student is serious about their school. For an early estimate of your eligibility for federal financial funds, access the FAFSA4caster tool from the Department of Education.

Get your FAFSA in by March 2 to benefit from state financial aid: The state of California has some of the most generously funded programs for postsecondary education, including those for universities and colleges as well as trade and vocational schools. The eligibility criteria for state and federal funds differ to some extent, so you may be able to receive financial aid from the state even if you don’t qualify for federal aid. For California residents seeking to benefit from many of the state financial assistance programs, the FAFSA or California Dream Act Application must be completed by March 2, 2019 for the 2019-20 school year.

The most commonly used form of college financial aid from the state of California is the Cal Grant Program, but there are a number of other programs from which California students may benefit. Among these are the California Chafee Grant Program, Middle Class Scholarship (MCS) and the California National Guard Education Assistance Award Program (CNG EAAP).  If you’re the dependent or spouse of a California peace officer (or a member of certain other groups) employed by public entities who has been killed or 100 percent disabled in the performance of duty, you may be eligible for a need-based grant from the Law Enforcement Personnel Dependents Grant Program (LEPD). These grant awards match the amount of a Cal Grant and currently range from $100 to $12,192 for up to four years. Find details at http://bit.ly/GetInfoLEPD.

Check into the schools themselves: Schools you’re considering attending (or are hoping to attend), offer another potentially valuable source of funds to help defray the costs of higher education. Colleges and universities often offer both need-based grants and merit-based scholarships for those who have demonstrated excellence in academic, athletic or artistic pursuits. Certain departments may also offer scholarships for students in an intended major, such as programs in education, healthcare or a STEM-related field (it’s worth noting that government funds are available for certain fields as well). To find out what a college or university has to offer, visit the school’s website or financial aid office.

Don’t overlook money from private organizations: As U.S News & World Report has pointed out, the biggest source of scholarships and grants is the federal government, followed by colleges and universities themselves. However, some 5,000 private groups and organizations across the country provide several billions of dollars per year in private scholarships and grants for a multitude of reasons. Some examples of these include corporations, veterans’ associations, professional associations, foundations, churches and local service clubs like Rotary, Lions and the Elks. Many of these scholarships are merit-based, so even students from very affluent families can obtain them.

To streamline your search for private scholarships, take advantage of online tools such as FastWeb and the College Board’s Scholarship Search. You can also find great tips and pitfalls to avoid in Forbes’ article “Digging for Scholarships Can Turn Up College Gold.” Also, be sure that you understand how any outside awards could impact your total financial aid package. Find a helpful guide to this topic at The SmartStudent Guide to Financial Aid.

Don’t miss the opportunity to apply for a scholarship with SFPCU! Every year, SF Police Credit Union awards four $1,000 college scholarships to members who demonstrate academic excellence and make a meaningful contribution to their community. To be considered for one of our 2019 scholarship awards, be sure to apply before December 31, 2018. Find details and eligibility requirements at https://www.sfpcu.org/membership/scholarships.

For more ways to reduce your college costs and ensure that you make a solid investment in you or your child’s education, check out “The Best Colleges for Your Money 2018.” Money magazine has analyzed graduation rates, tuition charges, money borrowed, alumni earnings and 22 other data points to bring you the “727 Best Colleges in America” in terms of value. Find out if the schools you’re considering made the list here.

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