Who is eligible for financial aid anyways?
When many families hear the term "financial aid," they automatically assume loans, grants, or need-based financial support. In reality, financial aid is an umbrella term that colleges and universities use to encompass both need-based and merit-based aid.
Two primary applications are used to determine eligibility for need-based aid - the FAFSA, which is used for awarding federal financial aid and the CSS Profile, which is used for awarding institutional aid at a select number of colleges/universities (see previous blog post explaining the difference).
In order to determine whether you will qualify for aid, you will have to determine whether the difference between the Cost of Attendance (COA) and the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is a positive or negative number. A positive number represents the amount you are qualified to receive in financial aid. Some families may qualify for need-based aid at a private university but not a public university, as the Cost of Attendance may be much higher at one over the other.
There is no income cut-off to apply for federal aid because financial aid awarded through the FAFSA is inclusive of loans. U.S. citizens and eligible non-citizens can borrow money to help pay for college without qualifying for need. If your calculations determine that you are unlikely to qualify for need-based aid, you can still submit the FAFSA to qualify for non-need-based aid like the Direct Unsubsidized or Federal PLUS Loan. Some families want to have the FAFSA on file as an insurance policy of sorts, to protect against potential unforeseen disruptions to financial stability - like, perhaps, a global pandemic, for example.
How do you qualify for merit-based aid? Well, this varies based on many factors. Merit can be academic, as measured by GPA and/or standardized test scores; it can be based on talent, as evaluated through an audition, a portfolio, an essay, or an athletic review, for example. It actually may not even represent "merit" at all, as these days many schools use "merit awards" to incentivize students to enroll, when in actuality it is really just a more attractive term for a tuition discount.
As you evaluate colleges and universities that may be a good fit, research their scholarship opportunities on the financial aid section of their website and review the criteria used to make these awards. Some schools are very transparent about what it takes to earn an award - see Miami University, for example. Other schools like Ohio State, provide award descriptions and parameters like this.
Scholarship matching sites like Going Merry will help you identify scholarships that might be a good fit and provide you with requirements for applying. You can start earning micro-scholarships as early as 9th grade by entering achievements into your portfolio at RaiseMe.
There are countless scholarship opportunities out there, but it definitely takes time to research and apply for these, so don't want until senior year to begin the process. Happy searching!