first things first: file the fafsa
Think of the FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — as your gateway to college funding. Filing the FAFSA is the first step in the financial aid process. It determines your eligibility not only for federal student aid, but also for many forms of state and institutional aid.
Get started on the FAFSA here. You may have heard that the FAFSA is too complicated to complete, but it's usually easier than you think. It may take some time, but it's more than worth it!
And remember — never pay to file the FAFSA! If you need help filing it, college planning organizations in your state are ready to guide you through the process, free of charge.
Find someone to help here.
find the free money!
The best kind of money for college is "free" money — money that you don't have to repay. This type of money is divided into two categories: scholarships, which are typically merit-based, and grant aid, which is typically need-based.
There are many free ways to find scholarships. Never pay to find scholarships!
Your high school guidance counselor can be a great resource for finding scholarships, especially local ones that are specific to your area.
Some tips for finding and securing free money for college:
- A Pell Grant is a federal grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need. The maximum Pell Grant for the 2017-18 award year is $5,920. You are automatically considered for Pell Grants when you file the FAFSA.
- Reach out to your college or university’s financial aid office to discuss any scholarship or grant programs they offer.
- Many states agencies and state-funded nonprofits offer scholarships and grants. Click here to find opportunities in your state. You can also visit the Department of Education’s state index to find your state’s higher education website and learn more about their options.
- Thousands of private organizations offer scholarships and grants and are usually tailored to specific needs and interests. Local scholarships tend to be less competitive than national scholarships, so you have a better chance of getting free money for college. While the awards may be smaller, they can help you pay for books and living expenses. Every dollar counts!
get to know the financial aid office
Your best resource to navigate all your financial aid questions will be your college or university’s financial aid office. They can help you understand all your options, including availabile campus-based aid programs, grants, and scholarships.
need loans? maximize your federal student loans first
If you have exhausted your options for scholarships and grants and still need money to cover the cost of tuition and living expenses, then you should consider loans.
It's important to know that education loans are borrowed money that must be repaid with interest. The interest rate, forgiveness options, and repayment schedule will vary based on the type of loan you choose. Carefully review all the conditions of the loan and understand the terms before signing.
Your best resource to navigate the different loan options will be your college or university’s financial aid office. They will be able to explain all your options and how to apply for different loans.
The U.S. Department of Education offers several federal loan programs depending on your needs and who is borrowing the money. Remember that you must file a FAFSA to qualify for federal loans. These loans should be your first choice. Only once you have exhausted these loans should you look to borrow from a non-federal lender.
Key tip: You should always exhaust your free money, campus-based aid, and Federal Stafford Loans before looking to borrow non-federal loans.
filling the gap with nonprofit loans
You should use non-federal education loans — which must be paid back with interest — only as a last resort to pay for college.
If you still need to fill the gap between the cost of attendance and your available savings, free money, and federal student loans, consider borrowing from a nonprofit or state-based organization. These organizations, which are guided by public-purpose missions, were founded solely to help students and families pay for college.
You can trust that nonprofit organizations are working for you. They follow a set of strong consumer protections — called Guiding Principles — that affirm their commitment to working in your best interests, and not in the interests of shareholders.
Currently, all nonprofit and state-based lenders offer a fixed interest rate option, which is, in many cases, less than five percent, with low or no origination fees. Some lenders also offer variable rate options. The majority of these loan programs require a credit-worthy borrower or co-signer, resulting in extremely low default rates (often less than one percent).
Many nonprofit loan programs also include borrower benefits, such as no prepayment penalties and interest rate reduction options, and some offer benefits for graduates that work in a critical field in the organization’s state. Several nonprofit programs also offer income-based repayment options.
is refinancing right for me?
Much like mortgage refinancing, student loan refinancing allows you to take on a new loan that will pay off your existing loan(s). Any benefits, rates, and terms that you had on your existing loan(s) are replaced by the terms, benefits, and rates of the new loan.
When done wisely and responsibly, refinancing can:
- Reduce Your Interest Rate and Total Amount to Repay
- Reduce the Number of Bills You Have to Manage
- Fix the Rate on Variable Rate Loans
- Reduce Monthly Payments
Whether or not refinancing is a good move depends on your goals and your personal situation. Use online calculators to help you see how much you can save by refinancing, either in the monthly payment amount or in total borrowing costs.
Nonprofit and state-based organizations offer low-cost refinancing loans. Learn more here.
other loan options
Credit unions, banks, and other organizations also offer education loans. Check with your local credit union or bank to review your options. Remember to carefully review all terms, rates, and fees before signing a loan agreement.
know what you owe
It's important to keep track of what loans you've taken out, who your lender is, and what the interest rates and repayment requirements are.
For federal student loans, all your loan information is available through the National Student Loan Data System. You will need to have your FSA ID handy to access your account.
For non-federal loans, you can contact your lender if you need information on your loans.
need an advocate?
If you're having trouble with your student loans, free help is available. NEVER pay for student loan help.
Remember: if you have to pay, stay away!
In addition to contacting your student loan servicer or your nonprofit or state-based organization for help, you can contact: