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A Student's Guide to Financial Aid: Acquiring Financial Aid that is Right for You.

The task of finding a financial aid provider can often be a difficult one. There are many decisions to be made, but if you are knowledgeable and informed about student loan options, the process can be less painful. According to the College Board, families using financial aid to help finance an education, has increased by 85 percent in the last 10 years. Higher education is no longer a luxury only select families can afford, it is now accessible to all families willing to use financial aid as an option. To better understand your financial aid opportunities, there are some basic guidelines you should follow to ensure you receive the best type of financial aid for you and your circumstances.

First, select five to eight schools you are interested in attending. Select a wide range of schools so as not to limit your options and select schools with different characteristics and features. You don't want to rule anything out - a private school may have a higher tuition rate, but you will probably receive more assistance to cover tuition costs. You will also want to research the schools you are interested in attending. Find out the size of the school and attendance numbers, explore what areas the school is strong in academically and what areas they are weak, understand dorm rules and regulations and anything else that may affect your decision to attend that school. And above all, be sure to visit these schools. A school may look good on paper, but you have to see it to be sure. Most schools have web sites which prospective students can use to research their features and take a "virtual tour." If you want to see a school in person, your visit should take place during a regular school day and include a m eeting with an admissions or financial aid counselor.

The second step is to use resources you have at your disposal to learn about possible scholarships and grants. This is the best type of aid available and it is categorically referred to as 'Gift Aid,' because you are not required to pay it back after graduation. High school students should talk to guidance counselors for local scholarship opportunities. College students should contact the school's financial aid office and it will provide resources to help students find the best scholarships and grants. Talk to your family members, their places of employment may offer special scholarships for employees and their families. There are many Internet scholarship search engines available that provide helpful tips and financial aid resources. Some Internet sites to check out include www.studentloanfunding.com, www.collegeboard.org and www.theoldschool.org and you can also visit http://ericweb.tc.columbia.edu/hbcu/financial_aid/finaid.html for a listing of minority aid resources for African-American students. There a re many books with information about potential scholarships, including Peterson's Scholarships and the Black Student's Guide to Scholarships. However you choose to search for scholarships, do not pay for this type of service - there are plenty of organizations that will help you for free.

The next step is to fill out your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form. The quickest way to do this is to visit http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/. You can also visit a prospective school's financial aid office or your high school guidance counselor's office for FAFSA information. This is a form from the Department of Education that will determine how much financial aid you are entitled to receive. It is best to send in your FASFA form early, between January and February of the school year prior to enrollment. On the form, list the schools you are interested in attending. If you are accepted for admission, they will respond to you and with their "award package," which outlines which aid, grants or work-study you will be awarded. The schools will also share with you what your expected family contribution will be for the school year -- this is the amount that you will be expected to pay after aid is given. Schools may have additional financing solutions, such as alternative loans, which help cover the cost of room and board, and assistantships, where students assist professors in the classroom in exchange for full or partial tuition remission. Financial aid is an ongoing process that must be completed before the start of each school year and your expected family contribution may change from year to year.

The second best type of aid available is work-study, where students work on campus and are paid for their time. You also receive credits for time spent in the workforce. Ask your financial aid office for more information about work-study programs. Work-study is a great option for students. You receive valuable experience in the work place and earn money to help finance your higher education costs.

If you are not eligible for scholarships, grants or work-study programs the next option available to you is financing your education through loans. There are many student loans available and you can qualify for the loans that best fit your expected family contribution. Perkins loans are the lowest cost loans available but are only awarded to students based on financial needs. Federal Stafford loans are the most common loans available to students. Depending on your financial need, Stafford loans offer a partial or total interest subsidy while you are in school. Loan payments do not begin on the Stafford loan until six months after graduation. Federal PLUS loans are also available for parents of undergraduate students. Immediate repayment is required after loan money is received by the student on the PLUS loan. Go over your loan options with your school's financial aid officer and be sure to choose the loan that is best for you and your family.

To review the steps to planning your financial aid future, the College Board has designated a checklist to follow when you are involved in the financial aid process.

1. Talk to your family

2. Learn where your money goes

* Be sure to break down the cost of all your expenses and know where each dollar is being spent.

3. Understand the financial aid process.

4. Don't limit your options.

* Don't necessarily rule out high-cost colleges.

5. Create a financial plan to pay for college

* Use an EFC (expected family contribution) calculator. Visit (www.studentloanfunding.com) to find out how much your family will have to pay for your education.

6. Apply early for financial aid

7. Research education loans

* Before you borrow, be sure you understand your options.

Higher education opportunities exist for everyone. With all of the financial aid options available today, coupled with the expertise of your financial aid counselor, finding a scholarship, grant, assistantship, work-study program or loan that is right for you is not as difficult as you think.

Jim Eickhoff is a senior vice president for Student Loan Funding Resources, Inc., a wholly- owned subsidiary of the Thomas L. Conlan Education Foundation. The company is dedicated to providing personalized student lending solutions to schools and students to increase access to education.
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Author:Eickhoff, Jim
Publication:The Black Collegian
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2000
Words:1179
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