Financial aid: so you don’t have to live on ramen and Honey Smacks for four years

As January draws to a close, high school seniors around the country are breathing a collective sigh of relief as they click the "submit" button for their college applications. Finally, the long, arduous process of applying is done; no more entering of grades and test scores, writing essays, and stalking teachers for letters of recommendation. It seems as though all there’s left to do is sit back and wait for the decisions to roll in. However, one important detail still needs to be taken care of: paying for college. The stereotypical picture of a college student is one that lives solely off of dry cereal and ramen because they cannot afford proper food . But as is the case with many stereotypes, a bit of truth lies behind the stereotype. With higher education being notoriously expensive, college students must often deal with financial pressures during their four years while racking up a sizable amount of debt. According to the College Board, the average cost of attending a private four-year institution for the 2009-2010 sc hool year is $26,273, while c ollege seniors who graduated in 2008 carried an average of $23,200 in student loan debt. In order to face these daunting numbers, students often seek financial aid and scholarships from various institutions. Financial aid generally falls under two categories: need-based and merit-based aid. Need-based aid is awarded solely based on a student’s financial need. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is widely used by students to determine their eligibility for federal student aid, since almost every prospective student can qualify for some type of federal aid, regardless of their academics. Every student is encouraged to fill out the FAFSA, regardless of doubts they may have about eligibility. "In a fairly affluent town like Ames, some parents don’t want to fill out the FAFSA because they believe they’re not going to qualify for federal aid," Ames High counselor John Burke said. "But students can always find low-interest loans by filling out the FAFSA." Another common application for need-based financial aid is the CSS/PROFILE, an application distributed by the College Board to help connect students with grants, loans, and scholarships that colleges and universities may offer. The other type of financial aid that can be awarded to students is merit-based aid, which is based on many different factors, including (but not limited to) students’ academic achievements, test scores, and talents in art and music. Merit-based aids usually come in the form of scholarships awarded by universities or outside institutions. Due to the large amount of scholarships that are available, searching and applying for these scholarships is a bit more complicated than applying for need-based financial aid. "Researching, dedicating time and effort, and figuring out whether or not [a student] is eligible or wants to apply for these scholarships is important," Burke said. Scholarships can be found in a wide variety of places, and there are many different resources available to students to help them locate these scholarships. Aside from getting information from their counselors and Student Services, Ames High students can access a list of scholarships on Family Connection and many other websites, including fastweb.com and collegeboard.com. Businesses also sometimes offer scholarship opportunities for the children of their employees, so students should inquire into their parents’ places of employment to see if they provide any help when it comes to paying for college. With a wide range of scholarships also comes a wide range of monetary value that these scholarships provide. Some scholarships could provide for a substantial amount of tuition while others award a maximum of a couple hundred dollars. While it may seem as though the smaller scholarships may not have much effect when it comes to facing a steep tuition, Burke encouraged students to pursue many of these smaller scholarships. "Unless it pays for a pretty good chunk of tuition, many students don’t apply for scholarships. But [students] can piece together a few smaller scholarships and it can become a sizable amount," Burke said. For those students that thought they were done writing essays, think again. Many of these scholarships may feel like another college application all over again, complete with supplementary material, such as resumes, essays, and interviews. Despite the effort that must go into applying for some of these scholarships, the potential payback is well worth it. Even if a student applies and is not rewarded through scholarship money, there are many benefits that come with applying. "Applying for scholarships are really good experiences; aside from any money you might get, it definitely helps down the road for employment reasons," Burke said.No matter what kind of financial aid a student plans on applying for, a couple guidelines must be kept in mind. Students should get in touch with the financial aid offices of the universities they want to attend, and of course, be mindful of deadlines in order to be a top priority for financial aid. With many different options available, students can be proactive in their search for financial aid and hopefully, avoid a fate of consuming ramen three times a day.