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Empowering your money

Here's how to find free money for college

While a college degree may provide more job options, earning potential, and networking opportunities, it typically comes with a hefty price tag.

The average American family spent $30,017 on college during the 2019–20 school year, according to a Sallie Mae report.

But reducing the cost of higher education can help you start your adult life with little to no debt. Here are steps you can take.

(Photo: Getty)
(Photo: Getty) (Carol Yepes via Getty Images)

Ask your school to increase the offer

When a college sends you an acceptance letter, they may also include a financial aid award. This explains how much federal aid, state aid, and college aid you qualify for.

For example, the cost of attendance might start at $18,000 per year. After your financial aid is factored in, you might have to pay just $10,000. But if your chosen school’s financial aid package isn’t what you hoped it would be, you might be able to negotiate.

“If it makes the difference between you deciding to commit or you deciding to go elsewhere, they may be willing to give you more money,” said Casey Near, executive director of counseling for Collegewise. “They are businesses and they want you to come.”

(Photo: Getty)
(Photo: Getty) (The Good Brigade via Getty Images)

Check your financial aid letter for contact information, and send that person a message or set up a phone call to discuss. This isn’t an opportunity to haggle down the price of tuition, Near said, but to let them know about your needs. If anything has recently changed with your family’s financial situation, now’s a good time to bring it up.

Apply for scholarships and grants

Grants are typically based on financial need, while scholarships are based on merit. Both are sources of free money because they don’t need to be repaid.

During the 2019-20 school year, scholarships and grants covered $7,626 of college costs for the average American family, according to Sallie Mae’s 2020 “How America Pays for College” report.

If you filled out the FAFSA, you’ll be notified if you qualify for state financial aid and federal grants. These will be included in your financial aid package.

But you can also search for private college grants using the U.S. Department of Labor’s free scholarship and grant search tool and search for scholarships using websites such as Big Future, Fastweb, and Cappex.

(Photo: Getty)
(Photo: Getty) (Solskin via Getty Images)

Start with local programs, Near suggested. These provide “the least amount of competition, so it’s usually a little bit easier to apply,” she noted. “Sometimes there’s money set aside for a particular type of student.”

It’s also important to check ongoing requirements so you remain eligible for the scholarship. For example, you may need to maintain a certain GPA or renew your application each school year. Additionally, continue applying for scholarships while in school.

What to do if you need to borrow money

Any free money you receive to pay for school is a win because you won’t need to pay it back. But if it’s not enough to cover the entire cost of attendance, you may need to borrow money.

You have two options: federal student loans and private student loans.

“Federal loans are the best way to go rather than the private ones,” Near said. “There’s just so much more regulation and forgiveness plans around them.”

(Photo: Getty)
(Photo: Getty) (PamelaJoeMcFarlane via Getty Images)

They’re also easy to qualify for and come with low interest rates, flexible repayment terms, and generous hardship programs.

To apply for federal student loans, you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The application opens on Oct. 1 each year, and submission deadlines depend on your school and state.

If you qualify for federal student loans, they’ll be included in your financial aid package. Keep in mind: You don’t have to accept everything in that package or the entire loan amount, Near said. “You’re really in the driver’s seat. You actually can accept each line item, ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And you can also call [the school] and have somebody explain your award to you.”

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