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Paying for College 101 -- Financial Aid and More

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Even if you haven't heard back from your colleges, it's time to think about paying for college. If you're new to this discussion, you need to come up to speed in a hurry:

Step 1: Understand Paying for College

These links will give you the big picture:

  • "Understanding College Costs" is from the newly redesigned financial aid website for the U.S. government. They took about 16 different government sites geared towards paying for college and boiled them down into this one comprehensive, elegant page. This is the article to start with.
  • Finaid.org's overview to scholarships addresses scholarships specifically, which is only one of three ways to help pay for college.
  • A guide to avoiding scholarship scams can be found on the federal government site for a thorough discussion of where not to go for help. This is worth reading twice.

Step 2: See How Much College Might Really Cost

By federal law, each college must post a net price calculator to its website to give an estimate of costs to attend that college. They aren't always easy to find, but go to the college's website, search "net price calculator," and follow the directions from there. Here are some samples:

Step 3: Apply for Financial Aid

Even if you're certain you won't qualify, most colleges won't give you college cash unless they first know the government won't pay for college for you.

  • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) takes you to an introduction to the first form you'll fill out, including...
  • Will you qualify for Federal help? A link to see if you are likely -- that's likely -- to qualify.
  • If you need help completing the FAFSA, check out College Goal Sunday, a national program where colleges help families fill out the FAFSA, even if you aren't planning on attending that college.
  • Some colleges require you to complete both the FAFSA and a second financial aid form to be considered for aid. Check your colleges' financial aid web sites to find out what forms you have to complete; many will require you to complete the CSS Profile.

Step 4: Private Scholarships

Many families want to know where they can find the "millions of dollars of unclaimed scholarships" everyone talks about. Many of these privately funded scholarships are posted on the websites below -- but as you search, keep two things in mind:

1. Many of these scholarships require the student to write an essay, and most students aren't all that interested in writing essays once they've applied to college, which is part of the reason some scholarships go unclaimed. Allow ample time for motivation before the deadline.

2. If a scholarship is online, there's a good chance you aren't the only one to know about it, so don't count on these scholarships to be your sole source of college funding -- make sure you apply for scholarships and aid through your colleges.

Some of the more popular scholarship sites include: Cappex, College Board, Fast Web, MeritAid (for merit scholarships -- but be sure to double-check the college's website to make sure these scholarships are still offered), Zinch and a site where you can search by major.

Step 5: Make Sure you Understand Loan Repayment

The time to understand just what a college loan involves is before you take one. Read this loan information closely.