Financial Aid

Financial aid: What you need to know before you apply

Financial aid can be one of the most confusing steps required for higher education. You got the acceptance letter in the mail, you're planning for your future, and the last thing on your mind is paying for college, but it should be the first thing you think of after the acceptance letter comes.

Begin by filling out the Federal Application for Student Financial Aid, also known as the FAFSA, from the federal government. If you're a student under the age of 25, you will need your parents' tax returns from the previous year; for the 2007-2008 school year, you need the 2006 returns. If you're a student over the age of 25 or an independent, you need your own returns. The government uses these factors to determine how much money the student's family can contribute and bases the student aid around that. There are several types of aid you may qualify for.

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A scholarship is a specified amount of money granted for higher education that can be based on a number of factors: sex, race, area of study, sports, etc. Scholarships do not need to be paid back but may be difficult to qualify for and find. It is also harder for upperclassmen to find scholarships, as some are one-time-only programs available for incoming freshmen. You can find books in your local library for requirements of scholarships and how to receive them. Also, be aware that scholarships can limit other forms of aid given by the school.

Loans are the most popular way to pay for college and can be a parent loan, a student loan or a private student loan. A private student loan has the highest interest rate because it often allows the student to borrow up to the cost of an entire year's tuition at a time. These loans also require an excellent credit history with at least two years of continuous employment or a co-signer who meets the requirements. Loans through the federal government have the lowest interest rate and can be secured or unsecured. Unsecured loans are generally for a higher amount but can incur interest while you're in school.

Education grants and work-study programs do not have to be paid back. Grants are like scholarships and can be difficult to locate or receive. Work-study programs are a great way for some students to pay for college but can also be difficult to find. With a work-study program, you work part-time while in school, and the money goes towards your schooling. Some students find it easier to get a higher-paying part-time job than to use the federal program.

Paying for college can be hard, and over half the students currently enrolled in a higher-education program have at least one student loan. Loans can pay for a large portion of schooling and are easier to qualify for than any of the other funding options. The best thing to do is to consider all options and try to find a combination to pay for school without resorting to only loans.

By Jennifer Eblin