Financial Aid Search: 18 Cool Programs and Places to Look

Excited about college? Then start your financial aid search right away - you don't want to leave it till later.

Your will need some basic terms to keep you from confusing your FAFSA with your SAR. The list only seems long, but will just take a few minutes to read through. Take a look and move your search forward.

Financial Aid Search Terms

1. Free Application for Financial Aid, or the FAFSA. Used to calculate your EFC and SAR. This application is the key to most forms of government need based aid, such as subsidized student loans, Perkins loans, Pell grants and the other government grants. Most states also use it for their in-state programs. Begin your financial aid search begin with this tool. Use the online form to save time.

You can learn more about the form on my federal student loan website page, and click through to the site to fill out your form.

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2. Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. The FAFSA process calculates how much your family is expected to contribute to your educational expenses. The number may shock you – but that’s why you read articles like this – to find more as you search for financial aid!

If the semester is fast approaching and you need college books, one option is to apply for a student loan to get money fast.

By the way, you may have heard of this in looking for financial aid. Follow this link to find out if the Fannie Mae student loan is fact or fiction.

3. Student Aid Report, or SAR. After you have filled out your FAFSA, you will receive a student aid report. It will indicate how much federal student aid you can receive in what types, meaning student loans and grants.

The above terms just set the stage. Knowing the terms will help whenever you talk to your school’s financial aid search office. From here on out we go right into the programs themselves starting with the ones that offer free money for college, or nearly free.

Student Loans: Federal and Private

Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. With each additional item on the list, your chances of finding money for college in your financial aid search get better. This section covers the various types of student loans.

4. Perkins loans offer a delayed payment, subsidized interest type federal program. This means that if you have a Perkins loan, you don’t pay more than the set interest rate, and you make no payments until you are out of school for 6 months. You can get these at universities that offer the Perkins program. You need to fill out a FAFSA for this. Ask your financial aid search office for availability at your school.

5. Emergency or short term tuition loans come from some schools. I used this student loan to help me pay tuition one semester, and had to pay it back in 6 months. For me, this worked well the one time I used it.

6. Stafford loans you will probably recognize as the biggest federal student loan program. By the way, this program used to be called a guaranteed student loan, or GSL. You can get a Stafford that has subsidized or unsubsidized interest. Subsidized means the government pays the interest until you finish school and start making payments. Also, you can borrow from anybody who makes these loans. Your school, a credit union, a bank may all offer this type of financial aid. Your school will have a list, usually. And often your check will come to the school, not you personally.

The Stafford relies on the FAFSA to determine eligibility, and yes, you have to stay under the limit, both each year and the lifetime limit. After school, you can consolidate student loans, too.

For more on where these loans come from, hop over to my college tuition loan article.

7. Computer loans can make you think you have borrowed just for a computer. Here’s the deal: you can add the cost of a computer to your estimated expenses once, typically, in a 4 year degree. When you do this, your expenses increase, and you qualify for more financial aid. Because this happens, you will have to turn in your receipt for the computer to show you really bought it. And the financial aid search office may call it a computer loan. Truth is, it’s just a loan. It acts just like a Stafford or Perkins loan, and it will also come under the annual financial aid loan limits. FAFSA necessary. You can consolidate these student loans as well, typically.

8. The Parent Loan for Undergraduate Student, or PLUS loan used to be just for parents, but has been expanded. Now graduate students can borrow in this way as well, and the new name is the Grad PLUS loan. The payments start after you finish. You can really get into trouble with this type of financial aid, since you have no annual limit to your loans. You can borrow as much as you need. Be Careful! You do have to file a FAFSA, but you don’t borrow based on being low income or substantial need like a federal grant.

The Grad PLUS loan can be a great addition to your financial aid search. Often parents use this type of student loan in place of refinancing a mortgage or pulling money out of a home equity loan or HELOC. Parents can also use this as a way to make sure you go to college and get out of the house! ;o)

9. Private Student loans can add up to a whole lot more debt. A private student loan usually comes from a bank, and banks have some great programs, each one with its own acronym. You can borrow as much as you need with this type of program, and it’s just between you and the bank, no FAFSA required. Watch out! Only borrow what you really need - you will have to pay it back.

Grants and Scholarships

10. Government grants: the main grant you can get from the federal government being the Pell grant. Others include the Federal Supplemental Equal Opportunity Grant or FSEOG for cases of extreme need. The Academic Competitiveness Grant or ACG, for the first two years of college for students with great academics and little money. The National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent or SMART Grant, applies to the last 2 years of a 4-year degree, in a technical field. Math, engineering, chemistry, biology and many other majors would all fit if you apply for this grant program. You must fill out a FAFSA for all federal grant programs, which will help in your financial aid search.

11. State grant programs: nearly every state has a grant program to offer more aid to their residents. You can find these through the state website, usually the department of higher education. Most of these require a FAFSA to determine need. Take a look at my page about forgotten grant programs to learn about some of these great programs. Or, download my Grants ebook for even more information.

12. Scholarships: the subject of scholarships fills pages and pages of books. Why? Because everyone is different, and most only give an award to 1 to 5 people. Essentially, you get a scholarship for demonstrating talent or skill in a certain area, such as music, academic achievement (grades), sports, and so on. Once you have a scholarship, you may be able to renew it. You can find hundreds of scholarships from every organization you can think of, some right in your own neighborhood. Be careful of consultants that offer to find you a scholarship if you’ll pay them. Usually a FAFSA isn’t part of this, but could be if you are applying for a state or federal scholarship.

Your financial aid search can and should include applying to many scholarships. Keep in mind that by filling out a FAFSA, you apply to several programs at once, and you can still apply for all the private scholarships or other gov't programs you want.

College Savings Plans, Tax Credits, and More

Just a quick note here, I don’t make up these acronyms, and so far I’ve only scratched the surface. You’ll find several more in your financial aid search. In this section I cover a few programs that you have probably heard of. These programs offer great help, but may require you to plan ahead.

13. 529 Plans, which come in four varieties. First, your state can offer prepaid tuition. You lock in your college tuition cost with this one when you open the account. In the second alternative, you can save toward state tuition and get a tax deduction. Third and fourth, you can do both of the above for independent universities as well as with state run schools. You’ll want to start on this one young. More of a financial aid search item for the future, a 529 can help some people. You have 5 to 10 years to set this up, right? FAFSA not required.

Although I don't recommend it, you can access your 401k at times for tuition and other education related expenses. You can learn more on my 401k hardship rule tuition withdrawal page for some pointers on this if you really need to use retirement money. Otherwise, stick to others on this page.

14. Education IRA’s are not the same as 529 plans. With the educational IRA, you save tax free, then you withdraw for educational expenses and hope you have made enough to offset taxes. But, like a 529, you need to start ahead of time to let the money grow. You wouldn’t consider this a typical financial aid program to search for, but it does let you invest for your kids or your own future, and you can self direct. Self direction means you can buy other investments than just bond funds or stock funds. You could invest in rental houses or buy mortgage notes, for example. You'll need a company that offers self directed accounts.

15. HOPE scholarship and Lifetime Learning tax credits actually aren’t a scholarship…sorry. These are tax credit programs. You can use tuition and fees from your family members that you support (think dependents) as tax credits when figuring your taxes. HOPE only applies to the first two years. The Lifetime Learning tax credit you can use over and over again. It phases out as your income goes up. Not financial aid like a grant, where someone gives you a check, but may it apply to you. Talk to a tax pro for more in this one.

16. Tuition waiver programs usually come from states, and offer some students either free or greatly reduced tuition. Typically applies to state schools, but some programs include private colleges and universities. When you are looking for financial aid, finding free tuition is good.

17. Loan forgiveness programs offer to pay your loans in exchange for your work in a specific field. For example, work as a school teacher and you can get some of your loans paid or forgiven. This program also goes by the name tuition forgiveness. Note that this doesn’t happen until you go to school, graduate, and get a job that offers this type of aid. Still, borrow and someone else pays it back is a nice package.

18. Tuition Assistance programs or Tuition Reimbursement may sound familiar if you have a job. Many companies offer a program like this to employees, and generally few ever apply to use it. I have worked for a company that offered reimbursement, where you pay, take the class, then fill out a form and get some or all of your money back. And I have also worked for a company that paid the tuition up front for me. Both programs can offset much of the tuition for your schooling. No FAFSA involved.

If you have a job, you should consider talking to your company about this type of financial aid. See my page on College Tuition Assistance for more information. Your financial aid search is getting better.

Get Started!

It’s kind of a long list, isn’t it? Believe it or not, I had to edit the list down, to keep it readable. I have another list I will write also about a whole other part of the financial aid world. For now, check out the above items and get started. Take the first step in your financial aid search and go to my FAFSA page Or take a nap, if it was too much!

If you already have a student loan and need a break, take a look at student loan deferment .

For a shorter list that also has some information for international students, see my page on free money for college students

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