As the cost of a college education skyrockets, applying for financial aid has become a task that very few prospective students can avoid. After the labor-intensive task of filling out college entrance applications is complete, a high school senior is faced with still more forms to fill out and a dizzying array of puzzling acronyms like FAFSA, FFEL, EFC and SAR. Luckily, there's help to be found on the Internet.
The first step for most students will be completing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to determine eligibility for financial aid. This will generate a Student Aid Report, or SAR, which will contain the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. It will be forwarded to the colleges specified by the student in the application. Once the student has been accepted, each college will award a financial package, made up of scholarships, grants, loans and work-study. In theory, the EFC plus the money awarded in the financial aid package should equal the total cost of attendance, but that's not always the case. It may be up to the student and his or her family to come up with the difference through bank loans and private scholarships.
For more information on the FAFSA, as well as on the many programs for which FAFSA determines your eligibility, be sure to read the PDF,Student Guide, a comprehensive resource from the U.S. Department of Education on the student financial aid programs it funds. Federal Student Aid, also sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, offers guidance on topics that a student applying for aid will find helpful. Topics include money-saving tax breaks, who is responsible for accrediting colleges and where to locate other federal sources of financial aid.
Operating on the theory that students use the Internet more than any other demographic, Students.gov is a gateway to information about government and other services on the Internet especially tailored for post-secondary students. While they cover everything from internships to community service, they have a section devoted to financial planning. You'll find links to scholarships, financial calculators and work-study programs. Use the search engine to find information specific to your needs.
What if your financial aid package falls short of what you feel you need to cover your costs? The Financial Aid Resource Center covers not only federal aid programs, but also loans and private sector scholarships. Be sure to check out the list of free scholarship searches and calculators, including a College Cost Calculator, Loan Payment Calculator and a Total Payments Calculator. In addition to information on private scholarships and loans, College Financial Aid can help you figure out how much your family will have to pay and allows you to compare aid packages online. You'll also find scholarship sources at CollegeBoard.com's Paying for College, Scholarships.com, and the 2002 Colleges, College Scholarships and Financial Aid Page.