The financial aid process is a little bit different for each student, but there are a few things that hold true for just about everyone, including high school students. Even though you're still in high school doesn't mean you shouldn't start thinking about how you'll pay for college.
Tips for Finding Financial Aid for High School Students
There's a ton of information about financial aid on this page, and yes, we know it looks intimidating, especially if you're still in high school. Before you — students and parents alike — get too far into the guide, check out the flowchart that walks you step-by-step through every possible option you can pursue for financial aid.
Interact with the flowchart and answer the basic questions it asks to help you explore how you should tackle your financial aid game plan — and in what order.
Taking this first step should save you a ton of time and (and hopefully money) as you work through the process. Once you know where you stand, you can come back and research the funding options the most sense for you and your situation.
Filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is essential. There are many variables that go into determining eligibility, and there's no way to know if you are eligible for assistance if you don't apply.
So, even if you don't think you'll qualify for federal financial aid, file the FAFSA.
- The FAFSA is used by agencies and funding sources other than the federal government to determine your eligibility for scholarships, grants, loans and other financial aid programs.
- The FAFSA is used as your application for federal student loans. Because of this, completing the FAFSA gives you two big advantages: you may be eligible for non-federal aid, and even if you don't want a loan now, the paperwork is already done in case you change your mind.
Filing the FAFSA
The quickest way to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is online at: FAFSA on the Web. Complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1st of the year in which you will need funding.
It will be easier to fill out the FAFSA if you have these items handy:
- Your Social Security card and driver’s license
- Your W-2 Forms or other records of earned-income (and your spouse’s, if you are married) federal income tax return.
- Your parent’s federal income tax return (unless you are filing as independent)
- Records of other untaxed income you received, including welfare benefits, social security benefits, TANF, veteran’s benefits, and military or clergy allowances
- Your current bank statements and records of stocks, bonds, and other investments
- Your business or farm records, if applicable
- Your alien registration card (if you are not a U.S. citizen)
Tip: If you or your parents have not completed federal income tax returns yet, use estimates from pay stubs and bank statements.
If you or your parents’ income has not changed significantly, you have a choice. You can use the amount of tax you paid last year or you can estimate. Here’s an easy way to estimate the amount of tax you owe:
- Take the line item from your federal income tax return titled “This is your total tax.”
- Divide it by your adjusted gross income.
- Multiple this number by your estimate of this year’s adjusted gross income to obtain an estimate of the amount of you tax owe.
Other Applications You May Need to File
Incoming freshman may also need to complete the CSS Profile Application. Some private colleges require the profile because it gives financial aid administrators more information to determine your eligibility for need-based assistance and funding directly from the school. In other cases, they may need the profile to offer admission to very competitive programs for early admission where the admissions process is not need blind.
The Profile must be completed earlier than the FAFSA – usually in the middle of October of the year prior to the year you’ll need funding. Check with your college to see if you are required to complete the CSS Profile. You can register and apply online at: CSS Profile
Institutional Aid Applications
Some schools require you complete a form they provide you. This is called an institutional aid application. On this form you may be asked to tell the school about outside scholarships you expect to receive and whether you’re interested in other types of aid such as work study.
Often you can also use this form to explain any special circumstances not taken into account on the FAFSA (e.g. an unexpected recent loss of income, extraordinary medical expenses, etc.). If your school requires one of these applications, they will mail it to you.
Financial Aid Eligibility
Financial Need is a term used to describe how much need-based financial aid you're eligible to receive. Your financial need is calculated by subtracting your school's Cost of Attendance (COA) from your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). In order for you to receive need-based aid, your COA must be greater than your EFC.
Let's take a look at how Financial Need is calculated.
COA – EFC = Financial Need
Schools use the processed data from the FAFSA and/or the CSS Profile to determine your financial aid eligibility. Whether you complete the FAFSA and, if required, the Profile, the basis for determining your award is a number referred to as the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
The EFC is a measure of your family's ability to pay for college based on student and parent income and asset information, your state of residence, household size, and number of household members in college. Some factors that go into determining your EFC include demographic, financial, and household data, among other things.
The next step in calculating your financial need is figuring out what the Cost of Attendance (COA) will be for the school you will attend. The school you attend establishes a COA for the academic period for which you will be enrolled. The COA includes tuition, room and board, fees and estimated living expenses. Variable costs like books and personal expenses are also included.
The Financial Aid Award Letter
The financial aid office at your school will use the need-based resources they have available to try to meet your Financial Need. They will use other funding sources that aren't based on need such as the Unsubsidized Direct Student Loan to help cover the entire COA.
Of course, they won't always be able to meet a student's full financing need or cost of attendance.
Sometimes, even after a college has received your FAFSA data, additional information may still be required to complete your package/award. This process is called "verification". If you are selected for verification, the school will ask that you fill out a Verification Worksheet.
In addition, they request physical copies of documents such as federal income tax returns, W-2′s and any other income statements (e.g. 1099′s) they may require.
Warning: the college will not process your financial aid, without this additional documentation.
If you plan on accepting a Stafford loan or Direct PLUS loans, you will also need to complete promissory notes. The college you attend will provide you with specific information on how to complete this part of the process.
If it's your first time borrowing a federal loan, you'll also need to complete an "entrance interview," which is simply a session done online or in-person that informs you of your rights and responsibilities as a student loan borrower.
Read everything the college sends you carefully and respond to requests promptly. If you have questions or don’t understand something, call the financial aid office and ask! They’ll be more than happy to provide a helping hand.
Types of Financial Aid
If you aren't familiar with the different types of financial aid that undergraduate students can pursue, we encourage you to do your homework and educate yourself using the links below. Financial aid comes from a variety of sources, so be sure to review each financial aid type in greater detail as you put together your plan.