Financial aid award letters often detail financial aid you’ll receive your first year of school, but they can neglect to share if the aid you receive will continue in future years. For instance, I received an offer from a private college in New York City for a $20,000 scholarship. The scholarship was a one-time offer for my first year of attendance. While it cut my tuition bill in half, I didn’t want to spend $40,000 in future years. I chose a state school instead.
Here’s how to evaluate first year costs, and see what you’ll really pay in future years:
Call the financial aid office to find out rules for maintaining scholarships.
The first step in determining whether your financial aid will last past freshman year is calling your college’s financial aid office. For each scholarship or grant, ask the rules for keeping the scholarship the following year. More importantly, find out if the scholarship is renewable and the conditions.
For instance, a scholarship may be renewable for all four years. However, you may have to maintain a specific GPA, stay on a sports team, or take honors classes. Make sure you know all the rules you have to follow.
Maintain GPA, sports or course load requirements for scholarships and grants.
After students find out the requirements to keep scholarships and grants, the next step is fulfilling them. Each semester should start with a plan to do so. Students should talk to professors about required time per class, so they don’t take on too much work or other activities that can prevent maintaining GPAs.
Those on sports or activity-based scholarships should check on time requirements and practice time as well.
Apply for new scholarships in later years.
Just because a scholarship is only good for your first year, doesn’t mean you won’t get new ones. In fact, it’s really common for students who didn’t perform well in high school to boost grades when they are a bit more mature in college.
Set an appointment with the financial aid office each semester to find out about new scholarships. Also, check in with the department office that houses your major. Academic departments often offer major-specific scholarships for juniors and seniors.
Reapply for the FAFSA each year.
Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) isn’t a one-time deal. You have to let schools know you need money to attend college every year. After your first year of college, you’ll fill out the Renewal FAFSA with your family's income and assets information. You’ll just update school and financial information from previous year’s electronic forms when you sign in. Fill out the form as early as possible as some financial aid is first come, first serve.
Consider transferring when necessary.
I knew students who transferred schools because they received scholarships and grants based on financial need one year, but their family didn’t qualify the next. They ended up having to transfer to less expensive schools. Fill out FAFSA forms as close to the October 1st FAFSA annual debut date, so you can make decisions about transferring as early as possible if financial need isn’t the same.
If there are economic circumstances that affect your ability to afford school beyond what’s listed on the FAFSA, fill out the special circumstances form from the financial aid office. You can generally report expenses such as medical expenses and income drops that may boost financial aid received.
- Not all scholarships you receive in your first-year will be available to you in future years. Call the school to see which ones are one-time scholarships, so you know you can afford future years.
- Apply for additional scholarships and grants each year, especially if your grades are higher in college than they were in high school.
- Transferring schools may be a better option than paying thousands more if financial aid offers drop.
- Make sure you meet all requirements that you can for financial aid each year.
- Submit the Renewal FAFSA each year. Applying for financial aid is not a one-time activity.