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Financial Aid 101 - What You Need to Know

Picture of a University of the Cumberlands graduation cap on top of several hundred dollar bills representing financial aid.

Mon, 01/21/2019 - 4:03pm

As you near the end of your high school career and start thinking about furthering your education with a college degree, one of the looming questions you likely face is how to pay for college. The world of financial aid can be quite overwhelming, with many options and forms to consider. Even if you are not sure where you will be continuing your education or what your college experience is going to look like, now is the time to consider your options for financial aid. Here’s a closer look at what you need to know and how you can move forward.

Understanding the FAFSA

The first step in securing financial aid is filing out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This application is the starting point, because it not only identifies what federal programs you might qualify for, but also serves as the starting place for state aid. Your school’s financial aid office will also use the information on the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for other aid programs.

Decoding the Award Letter

After you fill out the FAFSA, the information on the application is sent to the schools you have identified that you are going to apply to. Once they receive it, the financial aid office will send you a document known as an ‘award letter’. The award letter will tell you many important pieces of information, including:

  • The total cost, including books and housing, to attend the college
  • The total amount of financial aid you have received
  • Your expected financial contribution (the amount of money you/your family will have to come up with)

The way this is broken down will vary from school to school. However most will divide the cost of tuition into semesters, and many will break down the various costs, such as room and board, books and tuition. However, look for these three main components to determine how much aid you received and what you can expect to pay for your education.

Another important component of the award letter is that most schools will include a total aid amount somewhere on the award letter. This may or may not be lumped together with other forms of aid, such as your federal student loans or money that you get through a work-study program. If you are trying to determine how many scholarships or grants you received, which dictates how much you actually will have to pay for your education, it could get a little confusing. Carefully read the letter to ensure you are getting all of the information clearly presented. If you do not understand something, don’t worry you’re likely not alone. Reach out to the school’s financial aid office for clarification. It’s in everyone’s best interest that you have a full understanding of what is expected. They should be happy to help guide you.

What to Do if the Financial Aid is Not Enough

If you receive your award letter and realize that there are not enough financial aid options to cover what you need, then it is time to get creative. First, look for private scholarships that can help cover some of the costs. You may have scholarships through the school, but there are different options out there in the community to also consider. Use online search tools to seek scholarship opportunities, such as Fastweb.

Next, consider taking out a personal loan. This will have to be repaid, but it can give you the funds you need to get started on your education. If you are fresh out of high school, your family may have to help you with this loan process.

Sometimes schools will offer payment plans. This can spread the costs out through the semester. Keep in mind that most schools will require full payment before the end of a semester in order to process and release grades, but this is an option to help you come up with the tuition funds needed.

Finally, check with the financial aid office to see if there are any school-based aid programs you may not have seen on your award letter. For example, university donors may have funds set up for people following specific areas of study. If you fit the criteria, you may be able to get additional money. Ask about a work/study program at the school. This is another great way to get some additional income to help you pay for school.

Finding a way to pay for college can be stressful for even the most prepared families. University of the Cumberlands would value the opportunity to partner with you and your family to provide an exceptional education at a reasonable cost. At UC, there are numerous resources available to you, even if your family can only afford to pay a portion of your college expenses. Interested in finding out more about UC and what it can offer? Visit us at https://www.ucumberlands.edu/admissions/undergraduate/financial-aid for more information.