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17 Ways to Maximize Your Financial Aid Package and Minimize Student Debt

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

By Gabrielle Chishinsky and Jack Zhang

Grants, loans, scholarship applications. Where do you even start when it comes to funding higher education? The world of financial aid can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate, but the #EmboldenMe team is here to point you toward resources that will make the process much more accessible for you and your family.

There are numerous scholarship opportunities that you can take advantage of so make sure to develop a strategy and use specific tactics when looking for financial aid. Here are the best practices you should employ to get the most out of your financial aid package and lessen your financial debt in the future.

1. Create a financial aid step-by-step guide and follow it to help you navigate the financial aid process incrementally, keep track of where you are in the process, and get the most money possible for college. Talk to your family so that you know what you can afford. From there, seek out colleges and scholarship programs to fill in the gaps.

2. Know the difference between types of financial aid. It is important to understand the different types of financial aid including grants and scholarships, work study, and loans. Grants and scholarships are need or merit-based aid that you don’t have to pay back. Work study includes federally funded jobs on campus or other approved locations. Although you may still have to apply to the jobs through traditional channels, you will receive priority consideration.

Federally funded loans include subsidized, unsubsidized, and parent PLUS loans. For subsidized loans, the interest accrued will be covered by the government while you are in school. With unsubsidized loans, students are responsible for paying the interest while enrolled. Parent PLUS loans require a co-signer, meaning both parties will be responsible for the loan and it will affect your credit if there are late payments. Private loans vary, but they usually also require a co-signer, have higher interest rates, and have much less flexible repayment policies.

It is in your best interest to minimize student debt. Student debt can impact your life decisions even after graduation. It may dictate what types of jobs you can take, where you can live, and make up a significant portion of your personal earnings. You can calculate student loan repayment plans to get a sense of what it might look like for your future.

3. Apply for financial aid. You can start applying for financial aid as early as the fall of your senior year. The first step to qualifying for financial aid is to fill out the online FAFSA form. You may also have to complete the CSS profile.

The FAFSA will make you eligible for federal and state student grants, work study, and loans. The FAFSA is the single best way to qualify for any need-based financial aid. Oct. 1 is the first day you can file the FAFSA, but still pay attention to your colleges’ priority financial aid deadlines. The earlier you start, the better informed you will be on the financial aid that you qualify for. Here is more information on how to complete the FAFSA. Keep in mind that you must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or an “eligible noncitizen” in order to qualify for the FAFSA. The FAFSA does not apply to students who are Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) recipients.

The College Board's CSS Profile collects information to grant students financial aid from sources outside the federal government. You should research the list of schools that accept the CSS profile. Be sure to fill out both if the college you are applying to asks for it, so you can receive the maximum amount of aid possible.

For international students, it is particularly important to pay attention to colleges that offer aid to international students. Colleges may have different policies for domestic and international students. Since international students do not qualify for most government-based aid, identifying colleges that will provide aid to international students is important. Additionally, each college has their own definition of what it means to be considered as an international student. It is important to research these college-specific definitions and determine if they may apply to you.

Undocumented students can still qualify for institutional aid and Virginia has passed laws that allow undocumented students in the state to receive in-state tuition. But there also plenty of other resources available to you and many organizations specifically geared toward helping undocumented students apply to college.

4. Remember, each college has its own financial aid policies. You should refer to each college’s financial aid FAQ page. Additionally, do not hesitate to contact the college’s financial aid office. Here are some questions to ask college financial aid officers.

5. Calculate your expected cost for attendance at colleges and universities. Every college and university has a net price calculator. This allows you to calculate what your expected cost of attendance is after applying for financial aid. Students can compare reliable net price information across several colleges with the National Center for Education’s College Navigator.

When comparing financial aid offerings at different colleges, some things to pay attention to include the percentage of students that receive aid, the average amount of aid awarded, and the percentage of financial aid that is covered by grants or scholarships. Grants and scholarships are money that the school will give to you and that you do not have to pay back, unlike loans. A good financial aid offer will include mostly grants or scholarships and minimize loans and college debt. A select number of schools offer financial aid packages with absolutely no loans, so be sure to research and consider these institutions.

6. Find colleges and universities that have 100% demonstrated financial need met policies. Generally speaking, universities and colleges that claim to meet 100% of demonstrated need will provide significant financial aid for those who qualify. For many schools, students with family incomes of less than $60,000 will have no family contribution, meaning that the financial aid will be significant enough that parents do not have to contribute at all. One thing to make a note of is the distinction between need-blind and need-aware colleges, which differentiates whether a college or university considers financial need when making admissions decisions. The College Affordability Guide finds colleges and universities that are doing the most to make higher education affordable, ranking affordable colleges by state and even by degree and programs. Finally, here are 20 colleges with the most generous financial aid packages based on a student satisfaction survey from Princeton Review.

7. Search for merit-based scholarship opportunities. Many schools offer merit scholarships, which can sometimes cover the full cost of attending the university. Some of these merit scholarships may require you to apply by a specific deadline, but others are considered automatically when you apply. Here are some helpful resources for schools that offer significant merit scholarships, including automatic merit scholarships, competitive merit scholarships, and schools that have low costs of attendance.

8. Do well on the PSAT. Every student takes the PSAT in the fall of their junior year. Doing well on the exam can allow you to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Award, which can lead to significant merit scholarship awards at many colleges.

9. Know that you can negotiate financial aid offers from universities. If you received offers of admission at multiple universities, you may be able to negotiate financial aid offers if another institution offered you significantly more aid. This may not work every time, but it is worth the effort if you can get the desired financial aid package at your first-choice college.

10. You can compare financial aid offers and figure out long-term financial planning. There are many free tools online including this great tool for comparing financial aid offers and long-term financial planning.

11. Look for free scholarship websites. There are numerous scholarship websites out there that include scholarships for all types of students. Many of these scholarships go unclaimed, so if there is one that fits you, be sure to apply. Valuable search engines include Careeronestop, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and records more than 8,000 scholarships, fellowships, grants, and other financial aid award opportunities. Additionally, the website offers abundant career-related guidance and a database of job postings.

12. Find databases and websites that allow you to complete a personalized search. Resources such as Fastweb compare your background with a database of thousands of awards. Conveniently, only scholarships that fit your profile are identified as matches. Finaid.org provides students with a list of scholarships and awards that will fit their qualifications based on academic, athletic, or artistic merit. Furthermore, scholarships are available for students passionate about specific fields of study who demonstrate financial need.

13. Search for scholarships for your graduating class. Colleges of Distinction has compiled a massive list of scholarships for the class of 2020 to apply for.

14. Do your research on scholarships for students of underrepresented backgrounds. There are numerous scholarships out there to support students from diverse backgrounds, including first-generation students, students of low-income backgrounds, or racial minorities. Some esteemed national scholarships which grant significant financial support include the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, the Coca-Cola Scholars Program, Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, the Jack Kent Scholars, and the Dell Scholars Program.

There are also multiple diversity and fly-in programs for students from underrepresented backgrounds. These programs are competitive and take place in the summer or fall of senior year. Colleges often cover transportation and lodging to make visiting affordable. Attending such programs will allow you to establish early connections with the admissions officers and students that will benefit you should you end up applying to the school later on. Signing up for a college’s mailing list can help you get notified about such opportunities.

15. Use community-based organizations and virtual advising resources. Matriculate is a free, virtual college advising program that matches college students attending competitive universities with high school juniors. Students can receive help on researching colleges that are a good fit, receive feedback on essays, and also receive guidance about navigating financial aid. Furthermore, organizations like College Advising Corps and Student Success Agency can be a great resource for first-generation/low-income students. There are organizations that often work with specific regions like College ACCESS (Tidewater area) or CollegeBound (Maryland) that can help with advising and the college search.

QuestBridge is a program that helps match high-achieving, low-income students to selective partner colleges that offer generous financial aid packages. Students can apply to QuestBridge partners for free through the program and are given more space to elaborate on familial circumstances. Additionally, the QuestBridge College Prep Scholarship for juniors offers full scholarship for summer programs, mentoring, all-expenses-paid trips to partner colleges, and a head start on applying for the QuestBridge National College Match in senior year. Here's more on the QuestBridge program from #EmboldenMe intern Angie Sohn.

16. Search for local scholarships. It is highly recommended to do research on local scholarships, as there are plenty, and they have relatively low competition due to being local. You should talk to your guidance counselor, mentors, or coaches about community scholarships that you may qualify for. Many high schools also have scholarships for graduating seniors. Here are some scholarships available for students in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. The DC College Access Program offers an abundant scholarship list resource for national scholarships and local scholarships that support students from under-resourced backgrounds. Finally, the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia manages 11 scholarships and oversees financial funds for 16 other scholarships that support Northern Virginia students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees.

17. Use Fee Waivers. For students for whom associated fees may pose financial hardship, there are fee waivers available for the SAT, ACT, and college applications. Colleges are generally accommodating when accepting fee waivers, but the criteria may differ across schools.

After reading our best practices to minimize student debt and maximize your financial aid package, are you looking for more? Here at #EmboldenMe we want to provide you with as many tools as possible. We recommend "How to Pay for College: The Steps You Should Take" guide from LendEDU. It's a great way to review the entire financial aid process and learn more about available resources.

Contributing writer Jack Zhang is a former assistant dean of undergraduate admissions at the College of William & Mary. Gabrielle Chishinsky is Embolden's blog content manager.

Have feedback or questions you'd like to see answered in future posts? Contact us at blog@emboldenme.org.