Financial aid offers from the colleges oftentimes don’t cover the entire direct cost of college. This means that after financial aid has been applied, there is usually a balance leftover that the student must pay, which is billed by the college. The total amount due for the year is typically split into two or three bills, based on whether the college goes by the semester system, quarter system, or credit hours. The student will receive the fall bill via mail or via the student’s college portal. Bill due dates will vary by college, but typically must be paid before classes for the new term start.
There are several options for paying the college bill, and it all depends on what works for you and your family. When planning to pay the college bill, students and families should consider these options first:
- Family/student savings from savings accounts, and/or college savings plans (such as 529 college savings accounts, if applicable)
- Earnings from summer or part-time jobs may help cover part of the college bill or cover indirect expenses like transportation, books, or dorm room supplies.
- Outside scholarships can be used at any college or university. Search for scholarships and pay close attention to deadlines.
- Tuition Payment Plans may make the bill more manageable by enabling you to pay the estimated bill over the course of the school year instead of having to pay it all at once and with no interest accrual. You can look at your college’s website for payment plans available and see if there is one that fits your family’s budget.
These are the best options to pay the college bill because they do not need to be repaid in the future. However, student loans are also another option. If you are considering taking out student loans to cover the college bill, it is advisable to maximize your eligibility for Federal Direct Student Loans or campus-based loans first before looking at private student loans. There are several reasons why federal student loans and campus-based loans may be more beneficial than those you may find on the private market:
- Favorable interest rates and terms
- Eligibility doesn’t depend on credit history
- More flexibility during repayment
- May be eligible for loan forgiveness if you work in a certain field
In addition to Federal Direct Loans offered to you, the student, there is also a federal loan option for parent(s) who would like to help their children cover the college bill. The Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) allows parents to borrow up to the cost of attendance (after existing financial aid has been taken into account) every year of college, with no long-term cumulative limit. In addition, they may postpone monthly payments on the loan until after their child graduates (although interest will continue to accrue on the loan balance regardless). Also important to note, if your parent(s) apply for the PLUS but are denied, you become eligible for an additional $4,000 in Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans for the school year. If you find yourself in this situation you should contact your financial aid office for the next steps in having the extra loan amount credited to your account.
It’s normal to have questions about Financial aid, especially if you have never applied for it before. One of the most common questions is, “Do I qualify for financial aid?” There are many myths and misconceptions about who is eligible to receive financial aid, so it’s important to have all the facts when going through this process.
Why This Matters
In this context, financial aid refers to money for college provided by the federal government in the form of federal student loans, grants, and work-study jobs. Other types of financial aid include scholarships from your college or outside sources, and private student loans from banks or other institutions. These types of funding have their own eligibility requirements, which may or may not be connected to your eligibility for federal student aid.
The only way to know exactly what type of financial aid you qualify for is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). When you (or your parent, if you are a dependent) complete the FAFSA, you will enter personal financial information that is used to calculate an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your school’s financial aid office will use this number, along with the cost of attendance at the college or university, to determine what types of aid and how much money you are eligible to receive.
Even if you or your parents think that you are not eligible for any federal financial aid, it is important to complete the FAFSA each year. Individual schools and states use this information to determine eligibility for scholarships, grants, and other types of non-federal student aid. Sometimes things change, and where you didn’t qualify for financial aid last year, you qualify this year. Thanks to the online application process, and the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, completing the FAFSA is simpler and faster than ever.
Do I Qualify for Financial Aid?
To determine if you meet basic eligibility requirements for financial aid, ask yourself the following questions. Please note, these questions apply to the student, not the person completing the FAFSA, such as a parent or guardian.
Am I a U.S. citizen, or an eligible noncitizen?
You are considered an eligible noncitizen if you meet any of the following criteria:
- U.S. national (including natives of American Samoa or Swains Island)
- U.S. permanent resident with a Permanent Resident Card
- An individual who has an Arrival-Departure Record (I-94) from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services showing one of the following designations:
- Asylum Granted
- Cuban-Haitian Entrant (Status Pending)
- Conditional Entrant (valid only if issued prior to April 1, 1980)
- Victim of human trafficking
- Parolee (must be paroled into the United States for at least one year and you must be able to provide evidence from the USCIS that you are in the United States for other than a temporary purpose and that you intend to become a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.)
- “Battered immigrant-qualified alien” who is a victim of abuse by your citizen or permanent resident spouse, or you are the child of a person designated as such under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
- A citizen of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, or the Republic of Palau. If this is the case, you may be eligible for only certain types of federal student aid:
Do I demonstrate financial need?
In this case, “financial need” is defined as the difference between the cost of attendance at a school, and your Student Aid Index (SAI). Your SAI is calculated based on your FAFSA, and remains the same regardless of the cost of attendance at the school you choose.
The SAI is a measure of you or your family’s financial strength. It’s based on taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits such as unemployment or Social Security. Due to changes implemented as part of the FAFSA Simplification Act, the SAI will no longer include the number of students a family currently has in college as part of its calculations, as the EFC did.
Each individual school will calculate your aid eligibility by subtracting your SAI from the school’s cost of attendance (COA). This is why it’s important to send your completed FAFSA to all the schools you are considering attending, as your financial aid eligibility will vary from school to school.
Based on your demonstrated financial need, the school will create a financial aid package informing you of how much and what types of aid you can receive.
Am I enrolling in a degree or certificate program at an eligible school?
The institution and type of program in which you are enrolling also affects whether you qualify for financial aid.
In accordance with the Higher Education Act, which established federal financial aid programs, there are certain guidelines institutions must meet in order to receive financial aid benefits for students. Institutions must have accreditation from a nationally recognized accrediting agency, or approval from a recognized state approval agency, in the case of certain vocational schools. Schools must also be authorized by the state in which they are located, and receive approval from the U.S. Department of Education through a program participation agreement.
The individual program in which you are enrolling matters, too. Degree and certificate programs must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education, be longer than one year in length, and lead to gainful employment in order for students to receive financial aid to pay for those programs. During your college search process, you should confirm that the school and program you are interested in attending is eligible for financial aid.
Additional Qualifications for Financial Aid
In addition to the basic eligibility criteria, students must also meet the following qualifications:
- Have a valid Social Security Number (if you are a U.S. citizen) – Students from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau are exempt from this requirement.
- Demonstrated eligibility to obtain a college or career school education – This means students must have a high school diploma, or a recognized equivalent, such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, or have completed high school in an approved homeschool setting. Students who were enrolled in college or career school prior to July 1, 2012, or are currently enrolled in an eligible career pathway program may show they’re qualified to obtain a higher education by passing an approved ability-to-benefit test (if you don’t have a diploma or GED, a college can administer a test to determine whether you can benefit from the education offered at that school) or completing six credit hours, 225 clock hours, or equivalent course work toward a degree or certificate.
- Sign the certification statement on the FAFSA – This confirms that you are not currently in default on any federal student loans, that you do not currently owe money on a federal student grant, and that you will use your federal student aid for educational purposes only.
- Maintain satisfactory academic progress – Once you are enrolled in college or career school, you must remain in good academic standing and meet your school’s standards for satisfactory academic progress to continue receiving financial aid.
- Submit a new FAFSA each year – Your financial aid eligibility, as determined by your FAFSA, is only valid for one academic year. Students or their parents must submit a new, updated FAFSA for each year that they want to receive financial aid. FAFSA deadlines vary by college and state, so it’s important to be aware of any FAFSA deadlines that apply to you.
Students in the following special circumstances may or may not qualify for financial aid, or may need to meet additional eligibility requirements:
Resources provided by:
What is financial aid?
Financial aid is broken down into three categories: gift aid, loans, and work-study.
Gift aid is broken down into grants and scholarships. Grants and scholarships are free money to the student, meaning they do not have to be repaid. Grants and scholarships can be awarded by the federal government, states, colleges, and private funders or organizations.
- Grants are awarded to students based on financial need
- Some examples of grants include:
- The Pell Grant is awarded by the U.S. federal government to eligible students based on their family’s income, assets, family size, and other factors. The maximum Pell Grant amount was $7,395 for the 2023-2024 school year.
- The Cal Grant is need-based and requires a minimum of a 2.0 GPA, with additional funds for students with a 3.0 or higher.
- Scholarships can be awarded to students based on many factors, including financial need, academic achievement, athletic achievement, community involvement, ethnic or cultural background, etc.
Loans are a type of financial aid that students and parents can borrow to help pay for college. Loans must be repaid, typically with interest. Loans can be offered by the federal government, the college itself, and private lenders.
- Federal Direct Subsidized Loans
- Available to undergraduate students with financial need
- Interest is paid by the government while borrowers are enrolled at least half time
- 4.99% fixed interest rate as of July 1, 2023 (resets each July 1st)
- Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans
- Available to any undergraduate and graduate student, regardless of need
- Borrowers are responsible for all interest that accrues
- 4.99% fixed interest rate as of July 1, 2023 (resets each July 1st)
- Federal PLUS Loan
- The Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS Loan) is a loan for the parent(s) of undergraduate students.
- Parents can borrow up to the full Cost of Attendance, minus any financial aid the student has received. PLUS loans have a fixed interest rate of 7.54% as of July 1, 2023
- Eligibility is based on a credit check, which determines whether a parent has an adverse credit history
Work-study is the third main type of financial aid. It provides students with a part-time job either on or off-campus, to earn money to help pay for college or personal expenses. work-study is usually funded by the federal government, but some states and colleges sponsor work-study programs as well.
How do I apply for financial aid?
Here is the breakdown of how to apply for financial aid:
- Register for the FSA ID
- The Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID is a self-selected username and password that is unique for each user. The FSA ID serves as a legal signature in order to submit the FAFSA. Both the student and one parent (dependent students only) will need to create unique and separate FSA IDs.
- Submit the FAFSA or the CA Dream Act Application
- FAFSA: Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA is required by all colleges and many technical programs and is available in December. The FAFSA is an application for financial aid from the government and is required in order to be considered for any federal or state-issued financial aid, in addition to some institutional funds.
- For students who cannot complete the FAFSA due to their citizenship status, they can complete the CA Dream Act Application.
- Submit the CSS Profile (if applicable)
- The CSS Profile (College Scholarship Service Profile) is an additional financial aid form required by a large number of private colleges and a few public institutions to determine eligibility for institutional funds only – money from the college.
- Review Student Aid Report & Address Any Issues
- The Student Aid Report (SAR) is a summary of all information reported on the FAFSA and is usually available to view a few days after a student submits the FAFSA. It provides important information about potential issues with a student’s FAFSA, the Expected Family Contribution, and other important information.
- Complete Verification & Other Follow-up Tasks
- Verification is a process in which the federal government and colleges can request copies of specific documents from a student to confirm the accuracy of the information reported on financial aid forms. Some students are randomly selected for verification while others are selected due to conflicting information that the colleges are seeing on the financial aid forms.
- Review and Compare Financial Aid Offers
- Financial aid offers typically arrive from February through May, after notification of admissions acceptance. Financial aid offers to show the amount and type of aid that has been offered to a student at a particular college – a combination of federal, state, and institutional aid. These offers can arrive in many ways such as: regular postal mail, email, or more commonly via the college’s online portal.
- Use the College Cost Calculator, a free online tool that helps students compare financial aid offers and the total costs of attending different colleges. Find it at uAspire.org/Calculator.
- Pay Tuition Deposit
- Once the student has decided which college they will attend they will likely need to pay a tuition deposit which holds their spot in the first-year class and for housing (if applicable). The tuition deposit amounts can range from $200 – $1000 and vary from college to college.
- Note that in most cases, tuition deposits are NOT refundable. Students should compare all financial aid offers and only send a deposit to the college that they plan to attend.
For low-income students, choosing the right college or university is often decided by how much money they will give us. We do not have the luxury of choosing a university in a favorable location or by enrollment size. Some of us can’t even choose the one that offers the best program for our major because it doesn’t grant us enough funding. We, low-income students, are faced with limitations when it comes to going to college.
And yes, scholarships are available, and their abundance does inspire us to apply to as many as possible. However, their competitive nature means not all students will receive a scholarship and therefore we cannot rely just on them. In other words, we need our government to keep funding education access for low-income students. Opportunities that come with programs like the Pell Grant.
What is the Pell Grant exactly?
The Pell Grant is a need-based grant awarded to undergraduate students who have not obtained a degree and demonstrate exceptional financial need. It has provided support for about 7 million students each year across 5,000 institutions in the U.S. However, its purchasing power has declined significantly over time. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, the Pell Grant only covers 30% of a college education when it covered about 80% in 1980.
As a Oaxacan low-income student raised in South Central LA and a personal recipient of the Pell Grant, I can vouch that receiving this aid was a significant help for covering my tuition at UC Berkeley during my first two years of college. I felt supported by this assistance and received an additional refund to cover my basic needs like food and housing. However, after my sophomore year, I noticed that my Pell Grant amount was declining as I reached senior year.
This is why we need to build awareness to #DoublePell because it can close the affordability gap for low-income students, leading to higher enrollment and an increase in retention rates. Education Policy Advisor Shelbe Klebs argues that the COVID-19 pandemic has made many students “rethink their post-secondary plans for fall; some may forgo college temporarily or permanently to work to support their families while others may choose to attend a more affordable community college close to home instead of a pricier four-year school farther away.”
Doubling the Pell Grant is the most effective way to make college affordable and available for all students. It can lead to more enrollment of low-income students of color, increase graduate school enrollments with more students pursuing higher education, decrease dropout rates, and restore its purchasing power.
Having this grant available made my college selection process easier because I could choose a good school with the financial aid package that was right for me. I am #ThankfulForPell because I was able to graduate from a 4-year university. By doubling the Pell Grant, I believe more students like me can have greater access to higher education, reach their potential and empower their communities.
Applying for scholarships is tricky! Every scholarship is unique and asks for its own set of requirements. Not to mention, there are different types of scholarships! One thing to always remember is that scholarships are free money. You do not need to pay back a scholarship, it is not a loan! If you have questions about loans, click our previous post here. So let’s get started, how should we apply for scholarships?
SCHOLARSHIP SEARCH TIPS
- Ask for Recommendation Letters
- Have transcripts ready
- Search for local scholarships
- Find scholarships that fit you
- Use the ‘About Me’ Sheet in the PDF below to help brainstorm your characteristics
- Keep a ‘Progress Checklist’ which can also be found in the PDF
FREE MONEY: Outside Scholarship FAQs
What are “outside scholarships?” Private sources of financial aid.
How can I get one? Most require an application – separate from FAFSA – and essay(s).
Who gives them? Offered by national corporations/institutions, local businesses, community-based organizations, and private foundations.
When are they due? Deadlines vary by scholarship – check early and often during your college search process.
Where can I use them? Most can be applied to any school, but some can only be used for college(s) in a specific location (e.g. region, state)
Why should I care? Scholarships are an excellent supplemental source of aid to cover the remaining costs after financial aid from your school.
Now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s start preparing to apply!
Download this guide to help you apply for scholarships!
According to Feeding America, food insecurity is “a federal measure of a household’s ability to provide enough food for every person in the household to have an active, healthy life.” Food insecurity is such a big issue for students because it can affect your test scores, concentration, energy, academic standing, and lowers your chances of graduating. In addition, food insecurity affects the most vulnerable students ex. students who receive financial aid, students who are parents/ caretakers, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, first-generation students, BIPOC, and more.
Unfortunately, students who are facing food insecurity are not accessing all the public benefits they could. The food insecurity among college students can get worse because families are losing income, medical bills are piling up, and folks are being forced to tap-in to their savings. However there are college, local, state and federal resources for you as a student.
Below is a list of food banks/ pantries that are accessible to you and your family at no cost, because no student should go upon not knowing when their next meal will be.