A Guide to Scholarships, Grants, and FAFSA

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Understanding FAFSA

FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is managed by the Office of Federal Student Aid, part of the Department of Higher Education in the United States. Students who wish to receive financial aid for college are advised to fill out the FAFSA online or in paper. The application is used to determine the amount they are expected to contribute towards the selected college and the amount they are eligible to receive. All federal grants and loan awards are calculated by FAFSA, and almost all colleges use FAFSA as the basis for their own financial aid awards and scholarships.

Types of Financial Aid

There are a number of financial aid options a student can apply for to help with college expenses. The differences between scholarships, grants and loans can be roughly outlined based on the following parameters:

- Does the amount require paying back?
- Is there interest or associated fees that accumulate?
- Is a FAFSA application required?
- Is there a limit to the sum you can borrow/receive?
- Are only US citizens eligible?

Most scholarship programs are awarded based only on academic merit, talent, community service, participation in certain programs, etc. as opposed to grants and federal loans, which require a FAFSA application, although there is a wide number of non-government loan programs available nationwide. Another difference between the three financing options is that scholarships are available to a broad range of applicants, while grants and loans are intended mainly for those that hold US citizenship.

Where to look

There are a number of options for cash-strapped students who require extra financing to continue their education. It’s best to begin your hunt for scholarships and grants locally – think of your college counselor as the number one resource for everything related to higher education. Be sure to take advantage of that readily available knowledge as he or she will be more than willing to guide you towards the type of financial aid most suitable for your situation, background and performance. Sifting through general scholarship lists is something you’ll want to do to get an idea of what’s available, but ideally you want to consult someone who knows the field inside-out.

The majority of colleges in the States offer some form of tuition reimbursement for their students who are interested in pursuing a graduate degree from the same institution. Of course, this limits your choices a great deal early on, but depending on location, choice of majors and sum extended it can prove to be a very smart investment.

Next, research all government bodies that provide fellowships and grants in support of graduate training in certain fields. Of course, this means that you may only be eligible if your major is on the official list and you boast an exemplary academic record. These types of bursaries are most useful if your chosen field of study falls within a specific, usually scientific discipline such as physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, computational sciences, and environmental sciences.

One of the government-sponsored programs that gives out the most fellowships to students on the basis of achievement, financial need, and exceptional promise is the U.S. Department of Education’s Jacob K. Javits Fellowships Program. However, there is a requirement that the recipient studies at the doctoral or Master of Fine Arts level in selected fields of arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Taking Out a Loan

Taking out a student loan is another option if you’re looking for financing. Normally the rates start as low as 2.25%, but it’s best to compare several offers to find the best match. You can use any of the comparison websites that give results based on a number of criteria, or browse bank websites directly to see what type of products they offer. For example, some private lenders such as Wells Fargo and Sallie Mae, give loans with fixed interest rates, which are lower than the rates available through federal PLUS loans.

The most fruitful place to search for a suitable scholarship remains the website of the college you’re planning to attend. This way you can be informed about the different awards specific to your school and the criteria to qualify. In addition, school websites have direct links to all the important resources you will need to apply, such as the FAFSA, which will save wear and tear on your keyboard. Or you can make an appointment with the on campus financial adviser, who will be able to answer any questions you still have.

Using comparison websites such as www.fastweb.com and www.iefa.org is helpful as they have huge databases of scholarship information you can browse by search criteria. It is still recommended that after locating a suitable scholarship or award, you visit the website of the institution that is responsible for its distribution and verify the information. Sometimes, albeit not often, there might be a discrepancy in the details and you should always go with what’s stated on the official website rather than the one that pulled the information from the web.

For student loans, the best website is www.studentloans.gov, where you will find a comprehensive list of available bursaries and all the requirements you need to meet to file an application. All the forms you will need to fill out are available for download. The site requires that you register and fill out some information on your account to gain access to the full database of the Federal Student Aid options. Providing accurate and truthful data about your financial situation and yourself is crucial to your eligibility for a grant.

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