Professional Learning

A Step-by-Step Guide to College Financial Aid

October 3, 2012

The one major factor that prevents millions of deserving students from going to college is absence of financial resources. Tragically this is often due to lack of awareness about how and where to get them. Fortunately the financial aid process is not hard if you have the information you need.

Applying for financial aid will be some background research. I suggest you advise and encourage your students to do this research themselves. They (and their parents) can get all the assistance they need to get that college degree -- provided they gather enough information about the sources that could provide them with the required funds.

There are four major sources for funding that every student and his or her parents can access in any state of the US:

  • The federal government
  • The state of your residence
  • The college where you are applying
  • Private scholarships that are available wherever you live

The Process

Before they look for any available funding sources, students first need to know how much money would be needed to graduate college. Have them take a pen and paper, or launch Excel on their laptop, and list every item that will cost money when in college -- transportation, food, room rent, books, tuition, stationery and so on. They need to be as accurate as possible, because it is very important to have the closest-to-reality estimate of how much funding is required. This is the foundation of the search for funding; hence, the need for accuracy. You should be able to get these numbers from the college itself.

Federal Programs

The federal government offers students two major funding options to cover tuition fees, textbooks, transportation and even other living expenses.

  1. Federal Grants: This is funding that students need not repay.
  2. Federal Work-Study Funds and Low Interest Loans: These are funds which a student can borrow and repay only after completing college and landing a job.

The Application that All US Citizens Should Complete

Direct your students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) from the Department of Education at (see below for more info). This form will be used by all the colleges in the country to establish the maximum amount of financial aid for which each student is eligible; hence, filling and submitting this application is a critical step in the process of obtaining funding for each student's college education.

IMPORTANT: The FAFSA Applications are available ONLY in the beginning of January, though the deadline for their submission is different (see below). Be careful you do not miss the boat!

The application procedure involves the following steps:

1) Calculation of the Estimate

Point your students to FAFSA4Caster and guide them through how to estimate the amount of funding needed. You can find all the information for using this online tool at

2) Federal Student Aid (FSA)

Normally the applications are available from January 1 - January 30. Make you students aware that the applications submitted are considered on first-come-first-served basis so that they can complete and return theirs as early as possible. The details are available at

3) College School Aid (CSA)

Advise your students to get on the Internet and find the college where they propose to seek admission. Most colleges will have online information about available funding. If not, the next point of contact would be the college's financial aid office to find out when and where prospective students can get applications for funding, the maximum eligibility, and the deadline and address for submitting these applications.

4) Steps to Complete a FAFSA Application

The students can fill out this application online, or download the PDF application form and submit the completed hard copy by snail mail or courier. They can also visit the college in person to fill out and submit the form.

IMPORTANT: The FAFSA application needs to be submitted every year, as the information provided is not automatically carried over to the next year.

5) Information and Documents Required for FAFSA Form

The application is user-friendly with explanation and help alongside as you fill it in. The students will need to keep handy the following information and documents:

  1. Social Security Number
  2. Driver's license number
  3. Tax information
  4. A special PIN (personal identification number) that you will use in all the correspondence about federal student aid

6) How to Complete the FAFSA Application

  1. Register and get your login info.
  2. Log in and follow the application filling in your basic information.
  3. List the colleges you wish to attend with your best-liked at Number 1, your second choice at Number 2, and so on. You will also need to give the correct Federal School Codes.
  4. Fill in parents' information.
  5. Answer questions regarding your financial status.
  6. Sign and submit.

IMPORTANT: The FAFSA application each student submits will be used to automatically apply for all available sources of state-level financial aid as well as Federal. Help the student identify these avenues so that you can find the details about each one. This is important because some of these state-level sources might require additional information.

7) Expected Family Contribution

Based on the application of the student, the Federal government determines the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Using these factors, the financial aid office of the college where your student is applying will calculate the Cost of Attendance (COA) -- which is the best indicator of the total fees to be charged. The maximum amount of funding for your student would be the difference between the COA and EFC (COA - EFC = Eligible Financial Aid Amount). Further, from this amount, the college may subtract any other financial aid the student would be getting in the form of a loan, scholarship, bursary, etc.

8) Acceptance of the Aid

Once the student's application is processed, he or she will be informed about any Federal aid available and be able to choose the most appropriate source from among low-interest loans, grants, etc. The funds will be disbursed and handed over to the student through the college's financial aid department.

As educators, all of us can work to help each student to understand the importance of college education -- and to crave it. Hopefully this post will help you make sense of the processes to apply for government funding for further studies. Please share any ideas or successes you've had in the comments below.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Professional Learning
  • College Readiness
  • Financial Literacy
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.