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MAIN Arrow to HomeYour Money Arrow to Financial Aid 101Financial Aid 101

The Early Bird Gets Financial Aid

Early Applications Are Best for College Financial Aid College costs are rising but higher education can still be affordable, thanks to more financial aid than ever before.

Last year, nearly 70 percent of students attending four-year colleges paid less than $9,000 in tuition and fees, according to the College Board. Many received financial aid, so they didn't pay the full "sticker price." Applying for aid early is important.

“Often, students wait too long to worry about financial aid and scholarships,” said Linda Peckham of the College Board's financial aid department. “Many scholarships are available on a limited basis and if you wait too long, you may find yourself competing for money that's already been awarded.”

Two kinds of scholarships are available: institutional grants awarded by colleges and universities; and outside grants awarded by other organizations. Institutional scholarships are usually based on merit, financial need or both.

To be considered for most student aid, applicants should use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Forms like the FAFSA and CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, which certain private colleges also require, can be filed online.

“The information you submit on the FAFSA is based on your tax information for the year ending on December 31. Many people do not file their taxes until April,” Peckham said. “You should submit the FAFSA as soon after January 1 as possible using estimated figures because if you wait until April, colleges probably won't have any grant money left.”

For outside grants, students should research their eligibility. In certain cases, a student's location or a family member's job can qualify them for scholarships.

Most outside scholarship programs have application deadlines in February or earlier. Some, like the National Merit Scholarship, require applicants to take the PSAT/NMSQT in October of their junior year.

“Start early, try everything you can,” said John Curtin, an incoming college freshman at Knox College who looked into financial aid sooner than many of his peers. “You never know what schools are looking for that would qualify you for financial aid.”

More information about financial aid and scholarships are available in books like the College Board College Cost & Financial Aid Handbook and the College Board Scholarship Handbook. Scholarship information can also be found online and with high school guidance counselors, who may know local organizations that offer scholarships.

More about college grants and scholarships around the Web: - Applying for grants

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