Exploring Your Financial Aid Options
Something that high school students need to pay extra close attention to but hear precious little of during the college admissions process is how exactly they're going to pay for it all. Now if you're like me, chances are you just filled out your FAFSA application and submitted it without giving much thought to what it was you were filling out. Yes, you vaguely understood that this very important document you were filling out would determine how much help you would get to pay for your tuition and other expenses, but you had much more immediate matters to attend to, like actually getting into the college of your choice and making it through the rest of your senior year.
For some of you, filing out the FAFSA was an exercise in futility, for your family's relatively strong financial situation placed you well out of consideration for federal and state money, leaving you on your own to pay the bill. Not the most desirable situation for prospective university freshmen, but a little budgeting and searching around for a school willing to work with you will take care of it. For others, however, you likely received generous amounts of aid, along with repeated assurances that you don't have to worry about anything, everything is being taken care of. Don't believe it! As a recent college graduate, I can guarantee you that everything is most certainly not being taken care of!
First off, although it is the responsibility of financial aid administrators to see to it that your money disburses, it is your responsibility to see to it that the money reaches your university's coffers. You could do this many ways, but usually it means that you will have to manually make payments the moment your aid is deposited in your bank account. Granted, the day financial aid disburses isn't necessarily the day your college expects payment by, but why wait to pay the balance on your student account? Universities are especially zealous about ensuring everybody enrolled in them has paid, so don't be surprised if you find yourself locked out of the dining hall or even unable to register for classes because you forgot that your housing balance was due yesterday.
Secondly, a good chunk of the "free" money you're getting isn't actually free. What you probably got was a couple grants that don't have to be paid back and a stack of loans that you, unless you enroll in graduate or other studies immediately afterwards, have to pay back as soon you get your diploma. Again, it's not something you think about when you're benefiting from it, but the moment it's due, you can't afford to not think about it. This is why it's important as you check your financial aid award each year to see not only what sort of help you're being offered, but whether you actually need it. For example, if you're afforded a loan for a couple hundred dollars, maybe you and your parents could agree to set aside a similar amount of money so that you don't need to take out the loan. That's one less loan to pay back, and without interest too!
Another thing you should think about it is getting a job. Not a fulltime job (although if you can handle one on top of your studies, then by all means go for it), just a part-time one, so you have a little money you can either spend on books and other supplies or put in a savings account for future use. The less aid you have to rely on, the better, and the funds you earn will go a long way to chipping away at the cost of attending university.