Paying for College

A Simple Guide to College Financial Aid

We’ll break down what you need to know about the FAFSA by defining key terms.

By Dave Ramsey

Your son or daughter is about to make the magical transformation from teen to young adult. As the one charged with sending them off into the world, it’s no wonder you’re stressed!  

We’d love to help. No, we can’t slow time. What we can do is simplify one part of the process. We’ll break down what you need to know about the FAFSA by defining key terms.

  • FAFSA 

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is a form that must be completed before a student receives any funding for college. Keep in mind that if your FAFSA paperwork is not processed by the time the fall semester begins, you may be required to pay tuition costs out of your own pocket, and then be reimbursed when your funding arrives. States and colleges have their own deadlines. If you’d like to receive state or college-specific aid in addition to federal funding, you must apply early! 

  • EFC 

Once the FAFSA is complete, you should see something called an EFC (Expected Family Contribution).

Breathe easy. That number isn’t the amount of funding your teen will receive or the amount you’re required to pay. The score simply helps colleges determine how much aid a student is eligible to receive. 

As a general rule, the lower the EFC score, the more funding your teen can get. Of course, nothing is set in stone at this point—you’ll find out the details once an award letter arrives. 

  • Federal Grants 

Grants are free money, meaning they don’t have to be paid back. Pretty awesome, right? The most common federal grants include the Pell Grant and the SEOG Grant. 

The Pell Grant is awarded based on financial need, cost of attendance and whether or not a student plans to attend school full time. Students who qualify for a Pell Grant will receive it no matter where they go to school or when they complete their paperwork.  

The SEOG Grant is awarded on a first-come basis to students who are already getting the Pell Grant and are in extreme financial need. Unlike the Pell Grant, these funds do run out. That’s why it’s important to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible. 

  • Work Study 

Work study opportunities are awarded based on need and provide federal funding in exchange for work. Most offices on campus have openings, so it should be easy for students to find a job in an area that interests them. Students receive a paycheck to help with tuition and occasionally have time to study at work.  

  • Award Letter 

After you are accepted to a college, you’ll receive an award letter detailing what kind of financial aid you can receive. Remember, this includes grants, work study and student loans. The letter should explain how to accept and decline funds from your school. Follow the steps and don’t be pressured into taking on debt. 

If you’ve already accepted loans, don’t panic! You’ve got 120 days from the start of the fall semester to cancel your federal loan without being charged interest or fees. Of course it’s best to cancel the loan now, before you’ve actually got a check in hand. 

  • Federal Loans 

Loans are not free money. Taking out a student loan means going into debt, with repayment typically beginning just six months after a student graduates or stops attending college. That’s right—some students pay for a degree without the benefit of actually having one. 

There are two main types of loans a student will be offered: subsidized and unsubsidized. On subsidized loans, the government pays the interest while a student is in school. On unsubsidized loans, the interest accrues and is included in the cost when repayment begins. 

Why do you need to know this if you’re going to decline the loans anyway? Well, it’s easy to be convinced that keeping subsidized loans is a good idea since they don’t incur interest. Unfortunately, interest is only part of the problem when it comes to debt. Smart parents realize that all debt is bad debt, even when it comes with a “No interest for four years!” sticker. 

  • Simplify It 

As the parent of a high school student, you need a clear understanding of the terms above. After all, that’s the trickiest thing about the college financial aid process. The words used, the paperwork required and the way student loan debt is sold as “good,” all make for an overwhelming experience. 

Dave Ramsey is America’s trusted voice on money and business, and CEO of Ramsey Solutions. He has authored five New York Times best-selling books. The Dave Ramsey Show is heard by more than 8.5 million listeners each week on more than 550 radio stations. Dave’s latest project, EveryDollar, provides a free online budget tool. Follow Dave on Twitter at @DaveRamsey and on the web at daveramsey.com.  

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