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The Whole Kid’s Guide to Financial Aid

Choosing where you are going to go to college is one of the biggest decisions you have likely had to make in your life up to this point. It’s sort of crazy that society asks 17- and 18-year-olds to make such a major financial decision! But, it’s a reality, so here are some things to look out for to make sure you’re thinking through everything:

  1. Fill out the FAFSA. This is a really crucial step! Whether or not you think you’ll be applying for need-based aid, most schools require you to have one on file when being considered for any scholarship. You can find the form—as well as tips for filling it out—online. 

  2. Meet with a college counselor, if your school has one available. Maybe you regularly work with a college or guidance counselor who can help you think through financial aid, or knows which schools tend to give good scholarships! Maybe your school partners with a scholarship services organization like College Now—check to see if your school has a window where you could meet with an external counselor to discuss options!

  3. Look for scholarships at the schools you’re applying to. Many programs have specialized scholarships based on the major you’re applying to, or your background. Check to see if the college or university you’re applying to has a scholarship for your major, or one of your involvements!

  4. Apply for external scholarships. Likewise, external organizations like college access nonprofits, faith-based groups, and others may offer scholarships for young, college-bound students. It’s worth searching around for, and even if it doesn’t seem like a lot of money, it doesn’t hurt to apply. Remember: a few scholarships for a little bit each can add up to a lot!

  5. Research Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The federal government runs a public service loan forgiveness program for students who are going into the field of public interest and work in that field consecutively for a number of years, usually 10+. This may seem far off, and of course federal funding is never guaranteed to last forever, but it’s a good thing to consider!

  6. Consider your field of interest. What are the typical starting salaries for your career field? What about mid-range, or later in life? Will you likely need more education, like a master’s degree, or a medical or law degree? Some careers, such as law and medicine, typically incur a lot of debt, but are thought to pay off with higher salaries later down the line. If you’re planning to go into a line of work where you likely won’t need a further degree, perhaps you can afford to spend a little more for undergrad.

  7. Have an honest conversation with your parents/guardians. A reality of the world we live in is that every student comes from different financial backgrounds, and will have differing levels of help from family or caretakers. These conversations can sometimes feel uncomfortable or taboo, but it is really important to have a clear financial picture of how much your family is willing/able to assist you with paying for college. Perhaps your parents have been saving in a 529 plan, or maybe this isn’t feasible for them. Make sure you have this conversation so you can assess your options clearly.

  8. Think long and hard before applying to a binding-ED program. Oftentimes, early-decision programs have a higher acceptance rate at colleges and universities. This can lead students to applying early decision to a particularly selective school, with the hopes of having a better chance to get in. However, be careful to check if this decision is binding before clicking submit on that early decision application. If accepted into a binding program, you typically don’t get a chance to see your financial aid/scholarship offers beforehand.

  9. Think about what debt really means. It can be hard to really visualize what student loan debt will look like when you’re first starting out on this journey, and it can certainly seem daunting. Consider sitting down with an adult you trust and mapping out what it would look like to have $50,000 or $100,000 in debt down the line, and how much you may have to pay each month in student loans.

  10. Keep your options open & broaden your horizons. This is perhaps the most important advice of all! You never know what a school may be prepared to offer you, and sometimes an amazing scholarship opportunity will come out of nowhere! Do your best to keep an open mind and consider all kinds of schools and scholarship opportunities.

Bonus expert tip: don’t be afraid to negotiate! Many schools are willing to match scholarship offers from similar-caliber schools. As long as you are respectful, the worst they can say is no!

All in all, keep an open mind, search for scholarship opportunities whenever you can, and seek the guidance of parents/guardians and college counselors! As daunting as this process seems, you are not the first person to have gone through this, and there are lots of great people out there to help you make the right choice for your future and minimize student loan debt.


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