Affordability is one of the biggest barriers to attaining a college education, and yet achieving a college degree remains one of the best investments a student can make for his or her future.
“Financial aid can make higher education a reality,” said Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “Most students at this point have to at least borrow something for their postsecondary education.”
Money on the table
In fact, according to The College Board,in the 2014–2015 school year, an estimated two-thirds of full-time students took advantage of financial aid in the form of scholarships or grants. Of undergraduate recipients, about 57 percent used grants, while 34 percent received federal loans.
Obtaining a college degree can result in tens of thousands of extra income each year, with those earnings increasing with each level of higher education, notes The College Board. That’s why understanding the financial aid resources available to students is so key.
“While we’ll sometimes hear about students graduating with exorbitant debt, most students borrow a reasonable amount…and they can repay their loans when they have their jobs and more stability,” said Coval, whose organization advocates for public policies that increase access to and success in higher education, in addition to providing training to 28,000 financial aid administrators in the United States. “For our neediest students, there is grant-based money that you don’t have to pay back. And for some students, that can make a huge difference and may determine whether they can attend college.”
First thing’s first
The first step toward affording college is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student AID (FAFSA) formto identify federal, state, and institutional grants and scholarships that may be available to your student. The next step, Coval said, is evaluating your financial aid award, which will come by mail or electronically from schools where your student has applied.
“Once the student receives the information, that’s when the family needs to sit down and go through that award notification and make sure that they understand it,” Coval said. “If parents are going through an award notification and don’t understand something or need clarification, we really encourage them to reach out to the financial aid office.”
When you have a good grip on your options, and have weighed them against any additional awards from other schools, you can begin figuring out which option is the best financial fit, she added.
They come to you
With FAFSA, you’ll receive information on any institutional scholarships that may be available. Those may include community- or club-based scholarships, Coval said.
Navigating the process can prove challenging, but you can leverage your resources to ensure you’re understanding all of your options to their full extent.“I would really just encourage families — if they have questions and aren’t sure about sure about any steps of the process — to talk to a financial aid administrator,” she said, adding that college counselors at your student’s high school can also help. “It’s completely reasonable for parents to call into the financial aid administrator to say, ‘I think I understand this process, but let me make sure I’m thinking about this right.’”