If you’re like most students and families, you’ll cobble together funds from multiple sources. Some types of financial aid are better than others, so use the following advice in this order:
Fill it out as soon as possible because some colleges award money on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition to the FAFSA, some schools also require you complete the CSS profile to be considered for aid.
» Learn more: NerdWallet’s FAFSA guide
Scholarships, unlike student loans, don’t have to be paid back. Thousands are available; use a scholarship search tool to narrow your selection. While many scholarships require that you submit the FAFSA, most also have an additional application.
» Learn more: 7 tips to help you snag a scholarship
If you opt for a traditional four-year university, look for one that is generous with aid. Focus on the net price of each school, or the cost to you after grants and scholarships. Use each school’s net price calculator to estimate the amount you’ll have to pay out of pocket or borrow.
Just because one school’s sticker price is lower doesn’t mean it will be more affordable for you, says Phil Trout, a college counselor at Minnetonka High School in Minnetonka, Minnesota, and president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. For example, if a $28,000-a-year school doesn’t offer you any aid, and a $60,000-a-year college offers you $40,000 in aid, the school with the higher sticker price is actually more affordable for you.
» Learn more: 3 things to know about net price calculators
Don’t make that mistake. As long as you submit the FAFSA and renew it each year you’re enrolled in school, you’ll receive Pell money if you’re eligible.
In addition to the Pell program, the federal government offers several other types of grants, which don’t need to be paid back. Many states have grant programs, too. Use this map on the Education Department website to find the agencies in your state that administer college grants. Then look up and apply to state grant programs you may qualify for.
» Learn more: How grants differ from scholarships
» Learn more: A student’s guide to work-study
If you or your parents saved money in a 529 plan — a state-sponsored tax-advantaged college investment account — access the funds by contacting the plan’s administrator.
» Learn more: Saving for college: 529 plans
If you need to borrow to pay for college, take out federal student loans before private ones. Federal loans have benefits that private loans don’t, including access to income-driven repayment plans and forgiveness programs.
» Learn more: How much should I borrow for college?
Remember: After you graduate, you’ll have to pay back any money you borrowed. Many student loans — all but federal subsidized loans — accrue interest while you’re in school, which means you’ll have to pay back more than you originally borrowed. You can use a student loan calculator to see how much you’ll owe later based on what you borrow now.
» Learn more: 6 best private student loan options in 2018