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College Affordability and Preparedness

Your Beginner’s Guide to 3 Federal Financial Aid Programs

Figuring out how to pay for college can be complicated and overwhelming. For students from low-income and working-class families especially, the cost of college is a real barrier. To ensure that students are not deterred from college due to finances, the federal system of financial aid was established.

The federal government’s role in financial aid was solidified with the passage of the G.I. Bill in 1944. In its earliest days, federal aid took the form of tuition grants for returning servicemembers. Since then, federal policymakers have actively helped students with financial need access a college education. Today, 12.9 million students and their families receive federal aid totaling just over $122 billion dollars.

So as an aspiring college student in need of financial assistance, where should you begin? By completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA.

The FAFSA is used to determine if you qualify for federal financial aid. Most federal aid comes in the form of a Pell Grant, a direct loan or a work-study award. You don’t need to repay a grant, but you do have to repay a loan. Here’s what you need to know about each type of aid:

1. The Pell Grant

The Pell Grant, first created in 1972, is the bedrock of our federal financial aid system. Roughly 7.5 million low and moderate-income students receive Pell Grants to pay for tuition, room and board, and other college costs. The Grant is awarded based on your financial need. Today, the maximum award amount is $6,095 for one academic year. This grant is the federal government’s investment in YOU. Applying for Pell Grants begins with completing the FAFSA.

2. Federal Direct Loans

After factoring in grants and analyzing your unmet financial need, you might consider student loans. Federal Direct Loans (sometimes called Stafford Loans), were first created in 1965. Direct Loans are safer than private loans because they offer lower interest rates, a grace period before repayment begins and flexible income-based repayment plans. Borrowers begin paying interest on Direct Subsidized Loans after leaving school. The interest on Direct Unsubsidized Loans begins accumulating immediately. Applying for a Direct Loan also begins with completing the FAFSA.

3. Federal work-study

First established in 1964, federal work-study is a program that matches students with part-time jobs while they are in school. The money a student earns can be used to help cover tuition or other college expenses. Applying for work-study begins with completing the FAFSA.

The FAFSA is used for more than just federal financial aid. Some states and colleges use it to determine eligibility for other financial aid as well. Before trying to foot the bill on your own or borrowing riskier private loans from a bank, complete the FAFSA. Make the most of the aid for which you qualify.

Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., President, Institute for Higher Education Policy, [email protected]

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