The High Schooler’s Guide to Financial Aid

Financing a college degree can be tricky. While plenty of scholarships, grants, and loans exist, it can be challenging to navigate the application process. This guide is designed to remove some of that confusion. Read on to learn how you can take advantage of your financial aid options and receive a quality education without straining your wallet.

Knowing the Right Price

Tuition rates vary tremendously across the spectrum of higher education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of tuition, room, and board at a four-year undergraduate program during the 2010–11 school year was $13,600 for public institutions, $36,300 for private not-for-profit institutions, and $23,500 for private for-profit institutions.

Generally, tuition is about the same for online programs as it is at brick-and-mortar institutions; in fact, 85 percent of web-based degrees are offered through traditional schools. However, students can save some cash by spending less on housing, transportation, moving expenses while also holding down a day job.

With all this variation, it’s important to conduct a fair amount of research. Several online, private for-profit schools, offer tuition rates as low as $530 per three-credit course. Students who want to attend an online, private not-for-profit university full-time should expect to pay somewhere around $3,000 per semester.

On the high end, public, not-for-profit universities will charge somewhere around $13,000-$15,000 annually. You can use the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator to calculate typical costs for all colleges and universities you are considering.

Financial Aid Options

Navigating the financial aid process is sometimes overwhelming, since there are so many different options available to today’s students. Here is an overview of the major aid sources.

School-specific Scholarships

The easiest way to pay for your degree is with someone else’s money. Scholarships can help you do that. For many schools, submitting your application makes you eligible for a range of school-specific scholarships. For example, many incoming freshmen are awarded dean’s scholarships on the basis of academic merit, financial need, community service, or leadership.

Others may require a separate application process through the university’s office of financial aid. Deadlines for financial aid are often made available in late winter or early spring, but check with your school for eligibility and deadline requirements.

Subject-specific and Specialty Grants

Students who study certain fields, such as healthcare or science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), often have access to subject-specific grants and scholarships. Non-profit organizations, schools, and businesses additionally provide funds for prospective students to earn a degree that will enable them to contribute to in-demand professional fields.

Some state and federal agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, offer tuition repayment programs for students who agree to practice their profession full-time in a predetermined location; the Indian Health Service award is one example of such a program. These awards vary considerably by field and provider, but are usually related to high-demand fields or geographic locations in need of help.

Federal Options

If you haven’t heard of the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA), now is the time to get familiar. It’s your primary ticket to federal student loan options. The U.S. Department of Education offers a number of subsidized and unsubsidized loans for students to pay for school, each with different repayment and interest rate terms.

If you are financially eligible, FAFSA can also hook you up with federal work-study, which helps you earn a paycheck while you are in school. Military families also have their own federal benefits including grants, loans, and scholarships.

Low-interest Credit From Commercial Banks

If you’ve exhausted your federal and state aid resources, then a private loan may be an option. The private loan industry varies widely depending on the lender with interest rates from 2.5 to 10 percent. Many require a minimum payment while students are in school, and offer deferment or grace periods upon graduation. This site provides information about the annual and cumulative loan limits, interest rates, fees, and loan term for the most popular private student loan programs.

Helping You With Your Finance Options

The Open Education DataBase’s financial aid portal is a great way to research your options. The home page is organized into three categories: grants, scholarships, and loans. Each lists options by category, and provides important details about application requirements, eligibility, terms, and requirements.

For example, the scholarship section demystifies the scholarship search by listing available opportunities according to education or speciality. Females, members of minority groups, and students who belong to other demographics that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education also have exclusive access to scholarships and grants.

Options for single parents, veterans, and individuals with poor credit scores can all be found in the loan section of the portal. All the facts on eligibility and repayment make it easy to consider what you might need to borrow in exchange for your degree.

With tuition rates and average college debt levels at an all-time high, students today are encouraged to apply for different aid opportunities. Thanks to the vast number of scholarships and grants available, as well as a firmly established federal loan program, men and women are no longer required to finance their education entirely out-of-pocket — and for most young people, the opportunity to receive an education, obtain a degree, and launch a successful career is well worth the time spent researching aid donors and submitting loan applications.