A College Student’s Guide to Financial Aid

Along with football games and algebra tests, high school students spend a large part of their last year of high school finalizing their college choices, filling out application forms, and figuring out how to pay for it all. Thanks to the Internet and new centralized application systems, students have more resources than ever to help them know what colleges have to offer, pick a major, find scholarships, refinance student loans, and make other important decisions. But with the cost of going to college on the rise, paying for a college degree can be challenging, making it critically important for students to be informed about all of their options.

Paying for higher education usually means drawing on savings, scholarships, and loans. Other possibilities include money from the military in exchange for service, grants, and tax credits. If a student doesn’t have a savings plan or a family with means, they will have turn to a combination of these financial aid options. Each option has its own set of qualifications and its own application process.

Scholarships and grants are most prized because they don’t have to be repaid. Scholarships offer some of the widest ranges of qualifying criteria. There are scholarships for redheads, scholarships for children of firefighters, and even scholarships for students who engage in hobbies like duck-calling. With tenacious research, a student can find a scholarship that they qualify for. Many scholarships are based on need or merit. Kids who come from households with low incomes can qualify for certain programs, and teenagers with stellar grades can gain access to financial help either through their chosen school or through private programs.

Some parents or grandparents are able to plan ahead for their potential college student and put money aside through a college savings plan. The beauty of these is that when it’s needed, the money is there and doesn’t have to be qualified for or borrowed. College savings plans can be divided into two types: prepaid tuition and 529 plans. Prepaid tuition lets the student or their guardians pay the college for costs like room and board or tuition long before the child is old enough to go to college. A more flexible option is a 529 plan. Structured by the Internal Revenue Service, 529 plans are offered in every state, but the money can be used at any eligible institution in the country. Managed by investment organizations, money from a 529 plan will not be taxed when it is used.

Beyond scholarships and college savings plans, students have several other choices to help them pay for that coveted degree. Most common are student loans, either through a private entity or the U.S. government. Government-backed loans come with lower interest rates and do not need a credit check or co-signer to obtain. Private loans vary in the amount a student can borrow and the interest rates charged, and students must carefully read the formal loan agreement so they understand what they’re signing up for.

The amount of financial aid a college can offer often factors into the decision of where to go to school, but choosing a college is also based on many other things. Starting with simple questions such as what type of degree you want to earn, what state or region you want to live in, and how big or small you want the school to be can help a student narrow down their options. They also might want to consider which schools offer their chosen major. Picking a path to study is easy for some college students, but for others, it is a more difficult decision. Some students decide on their major when applying for college, and others wait until they are in college.

A college degree opens the door to many opportunities for a graduate. The road to get that degree is full of decisions and frustrations, but for many, all of this work is well worth it.

What Is College Financial Aid, and Who Qualifies for It?

Finding College Scholarships

College Savings Plans

  • Prepaid Plans: Find out about how you can save money for a future college student.
  • 529 Plans: The Internal Revenue Service offers detailed information for making sure a savings plan is a qualified 529 plan.
  • 529 Prepaid Tuition Plans: The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority explains how college savings plans work.
  • An Introduction to 529 Plans: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission covers the basics of 529 plans and prepaid tuition plans.
  • Prepaid Tuition Program: For students looking at colleges in Nevada, the state has a page dedicated to their college savings program.
  • Is Starting a 529 Plan Worth it? People have a lot of misconceptions about 529 plans, and they’re not always the right choice for everyone.

Financial Aid Resources for College Students

Exploring Colleges and What They Have to Offer

  • The College Search, Step by Step: Choosing a college can be difficult, but the College Board can help walk you through it.
  • How to Choose a College That’s Right for You: There are many, many options for students seeking a higher education, and what’s best for one student might be totally wrong for another.
  • Best Colleges: Rankings: Each year, U.S. News & World Report puts out rankings of colleges and universities.
  • Checklist for Choosing a College: Your decision should be based on a variety of factors, from the majors available at a school to where it’s located to what the campus environment is like.
  • College Search Tool: CollegeView provides this tool to help you sift through more than 4,000 schools.
  • Picking a College: The Iowa College Student Aid Commission gives advice on making this important choice.
  • College Decision Guide: The process of deciding what you’ll do after high school can be daunting, and it’s important to carefully consider your options.
  • About Community Colleges: Should you attend a community college? Learn about what they do and how they’re different from traditional colleges here.

Selecting a College Major

  • What’s My Major? Loyola University offers this quiz to help narrow down a choice of majors.
  • Tips for Choosing a Major: The Vermont Student Assistance Corporation features a nice chart about different jobs available to different majors on this page.
  • Four Steps to Choosing a College Major: It’s intimidating to choose a major, but it’s important to remember that your major is only the beginning of a lifelong process of exploration.
  • Pre-Law Education: The American Bar Association has information for undergraduates who are interested in eventually going to law school about what they need to do to prepare now.
  • How to Pick the Right College Major: Not only is it important to pick a major that’s relevant to what you hope to do for a living, but your choice of major can affect which college you go to, as you’ll want to pick one with a strong program in that field.