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Navigating the Financial Aid Jungle

Feeling lost about obtaining money needed to attend college? Here's a map to guide you.

Posted: February 22, 2008 4:11 p.m.
Updated: April 24, 2008 5:02 a.m.
For most parents the sticker shock of tuition and fees for their prospective college student can be daunting, but in reality, most students do not pay the sticker price.

Financial aid is available - not only to low income students, but to middle and upper income students - in some form. You just need to know where to find it and how to apply for it.

Getting Started
The best online source of financial aid information is provided by the Department of Education's office of Federal Student Aid at Whether you're seeking financial aid for yourself or your child, you can find tools and information about grants, students loans and scholarships at this site.

The time to start looking for college funding sources is when your student is a junior in high school, but high school seniors still have time to apply for financial aid this year by the March 2 deadline for state funds. The federal deadline is June 30.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the form used by virtually all two and four-year colleges, universities and career schools for the awarding of federal student aid and most state and college aid. The form is available at or at local high schools in the guidance office.

If you go to a .com site, you will probably be asked to pay a fee to submit your FAFSA, so remember the first "F" in FAFSA stands for "free," and use the official government site to submit your application.

Parents who have not yet filed a tax return can estimate tax amounts in order to meet the deadline. However, once you have completed your tax forms, you should make corrections to your file either on the Web or by mailing in a Student Aid Report (SAR).

Help with filling out the application or filing subsequent forms can be obtained by calling the Federal Student Aid Information Center at (800) 433-3243.

Students and their parents can also get help from the Financial Aid office at College of the Canyons, whether the students intends to go to COC or not.

"We have students and parents coming in for help every day," said Tom Bilbruck, director of financial aid and scholarships at the college. "If they need help, we can walk them through it."

Eligibility Requirements
Eligibility for federal student aid is based on financial need and on several other factors. The financial aid administrator at the college or career school you plan to attend will determine your eligibility. However students wishing to receive federal aid must:

  • Demonstrate a financial need
  • Have a high school diploma or General Education Development certificate
  • Be working toward a degree or certificate in an eligible program
  • Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen
  • Have a valid Social Security Number
  • Register with the Selective Service if required
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress once in school
  • Certify that you are not in default on a federal student loan
  • Certify that you will use the funds only for educational purposes

The information you report on your FAFSA is used to calculate your Expected Family Contribution, which is used to determine your eligibility for federal aid. If your EFC is below a certain number, you'll be eligible for a Federal Pell Grant, assuming you meet all other eligibility requirements.

Students should fill out the application for financial aid whether they think they will be eligible or not, Bilbruck said.

"One of the biggest barriers we have is students assuming they will not qualify for anything, so they don't apply. But it's a free form, so all students should go ahead and apply," Bilbruck said. "There are so many programs available, that a lot of students end up qualifying for some type of aid when they didn't think they would qualify for anything."

State Grants
Even if you're not eligible for federal aid, you might be eligible for financial assistance through the state of California. If you are a high school senior, a recent high school graduate or you just got your GED, you meet all the requirements and you apply by March 2, you are guaranteed to receive a Cal Grant Entitlement award.

While there are other sources of state financial aid for college, for California residents the major source is the Cal Grant. Cal Grants may be used at any California Community College, UCSs, CSUs, private and most career/technical schools.

"Students must submit a FAFSA and a Cal Grant GPA Verification form by March 2 to apply for a Cal Grant," Bilbruck said. "Depending on which grant they are applying for, they will need a 3.0 GPA for the Cal Grant A and a 2.0 GPA for the Cal Grant B."

Due to a loophole in the 2008-2009 FAFSA, families who own and control a small business and are only required to complete this form will reap a financial aid bonanza.

A provision in the Higher Education Reconciliation Act of 2005 states that the net value of small businesses with not more than 100 full-time equivalent employees is excluded from the definition of assets, according to Reecy Aresty, author of "How to Pay for College without Going Broke."

Therefore new and existing small business owners, including those who are self-employed and file a Section C, will reap huge rewards in the form of untold thousands in financial aid previously unobtainable, Aresty contends.

Scholarships, Fellowships
Scholarships and fellowships are awarded each year to students who are interested in a particular field of study, who are members of underrepresented groups, who live in certain areas of the country or who demonstrate financial need.

Bilbruck recommends that students search for scholarships and fellowships by using a personalized search like the FastWeb scholarship search at Only those awards that fit your profile are identified as matches, and if you supply an e-mail address, you will be notified when new awards that match your profile are added to the database.

"There are hundreds of thousands of scholarships out there, and that site helps students find scholarships that they might qualify for," Bilbruck said.

A student doesn't have to have a 4.0 GPA to earn a scholarship. There are many scholarships for average students that focus on qualities besides academic merit. There are also many community service scholarships.

Don't waste your money on fee-based scholarship matching services - you won't get any better information than you can get from the free services available on the Web. Also, watch out for scholarship scams. Scholarships that sound too good to be true usually are.

Scholarships for Everyone
If you don't have a special talent and are thinking there's no scholarship out there for you, think again. There's something for everyone, whether you're tall, short, fat or left-handed. Here are some unusual scholarships that are available to people with unique physiques, skills - or even names. For more unusual scholarships, visit

  • The Frederick and Mary F. Beckley Scholarship awards up to $1,000 to left-handed students who will be attending Juniata College in Huntington, Pa.
  • The Little People of America Scholarship, founded by actor Billy Barty, is awarded to college students who have a medical form of dwarfism.
  • Tall Clubs International offers a $1,000 scholarship to women who are at least 5 feet, 10 inches and men who are at least 6 feet, 2 inches tall.
  • The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance offers a $1,000 scholarship to candidates who write an essay on fat activism or related topics.
  • The Patrick Kerr Skateboard Scholarship awards one $5,000 and three $1,000 scholarships to skateboarders who are high school seniors with a GPA of 2.5 or higher.
  • The Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Duck Calling Contest awards a $1,500 scholarship to the best high school senior in the United States who can call ducks.
  • The Zolp Scholarship provides full tuition for four years to any student attending Loyola University in Chicago who is Catholic and whose last name is Zolp.
  • The Scarpinato Scholarship pays full cost of attendance at Texas A & M University in College Station for anyone whose last name is Scarpinato by birth or marriage.


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