Financial Aid 101: A Crash Course in Paying for College

You’ve found the college of your dreams. The academic programs are a great fit for your career interests, the campus is just the right distance from home, and the social life is definitely your scene. Even better, there’s a good chance you’ll be admitted. There’s just one problem: the price tag.

Given the sky-high price of tuition at many universities, more and more pre-collegiettes are turning to financial aid to help support their higher education. The College Board reports that about 75% of college students get financial aid; an average student receives $6,100 in aid that does not have to be repaid at a public four-year university, or $16,000 at a private four-year college.

Between applying for college itself and everything else going on in a busy high school senior’s life, the path to reducing college costs can be difficult to navigate. What exactly is financial aid? How do you get it? Read on for everything a pre-collegiette needs to know about financial assistance for college expenses.

How much aid can I get?

Before applying for college and financial aid in the fall or winter of senior year, you should have an idea of your aid eligibility. Your financial need determines the maximum amount of aid that you can obtain. The basic formula for your financial need is the cost of attending a given college minus your expected family contribution.

Cost of Attendance (CoA)

Tuition may comprise the bulk of your college expense, but additional costs including room and board, books, transportation to and from school, and personal expenses such as toiletries, groceries, entertainment, dining out, and shopping are all factored into the total Cost of Attendance. When you apply for financial aid at a college, the financial aid office uses your CoA to determine the amount and types of aid the college will offer you. Because of the wide range of tuition costs at different schools, as well as personal decisions such as living on- or off-campus, the Cost of Attendance varies from one university to the next and one student to the next. For this reason, it’s necessary to calculate the CoA for each college you’re considering.

The first step in finding the CoA is to make a list of all possible college-related expenses. Keep in mind that you should do this separately for each university on your list. First, look up the cost of tuition on the college’s website. (For some public universities, note that tuition is lower for in-state students than students from other states.) Alternatively, you can search for your university on the College Board’s College Search site to quickly get a tuition figure.

The College Search site also tells you the average cost of room and board (both on-campus and off-campus), books and supplies, transportation, and personal expenses for students at that college. However, it’s also important to consider your own lifestyle when estimating these costs. For instance, how many times per year will you travel home? Do you intend to use an on-campus dining plan, buy groceries, or eat off-campus?  How much do you think you’ll spend on personal expenses? In addition, you might have special circumstances, like a parent who recently lost their job or a medical condition that requires you to travel home frequently to see a doctor, which might affect some of your expenses. Situations like these are not always addressed by financial aid applications, so you should contact the college financial aid office and explain your circumstance to get a better estimate of your potential costs.

After listing your tuition and all other expected costs, add up them up to get your Cost of Attendance.