Congratulations! It’s exciting to say “Yes!” to the college you want to attend. But now, you need to think about how you will actually pay your tuition. Complete these five steps, and you’ll be off to a great start.
First: Accept your offer and get your college’s “to do” list.
It seems obvious, but the first thing you need to do is let your college administrators know you are accepting their offer. Get signed up today! You should see instructions on how to do this in your acceptance letter.
- First step: The college will ask for a “college enrollment deposit.” You’ll need to pay this to get things started, but you may be eligible for a fee waiver. Talk to someone in your school’s financial aid office to learn more.
- Get signed up as soon as possible. You will be given a college email address and granted access to the school’s administrative portal.
- Check your new email address and college portal several times a day. The college will be sending instructions about everything you need to know: signing up for classes, getting academic help, finding housing (if you need it) – and getting access to your financial aid.
Second: Read your financial aid letter carefully and ask questions.
After being admitted, you should have received a financial aid letter with an estimate of what your first year of college will cost. This letter should also list any grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study money available to help you pay for school. Read this letter carefully with an adult in your family or your school counselor.
- Didn’t see your letter? Have questions? Or think you might need more financial help? Call your college financial aid office and ask to speak to a financial aid counselor.
Third: Get the money flowing. Check on your FAFSA, state aid, and any private scholarships you applied for.
Now is the moment to do a bit of housekeeping. When you applied for college, you probably filled out a FAFSA online. And you may have filled out an application for state aid or applied for private scholarships as well. You will probably need to check-in and answer some questions to get the money flowing.
- If you filled out the FAFSA, you should go back to the website, sign in, and look at your student aid report, or SAR. There may be questions or corrections you need to make. (And if you didn’t fill out a FAFSA, you still can – and should! Talk to your financial aid office.)
- You may have also requested financial help from the state you live in. Your financial letter will list any state aid you are eligible for, but you may need to request the aid on the state’s website. Log in and update your application with the school you plan to attend.
- Did you win any private scholarships? Those folks will need to hear from you as well. Email an update and ask what you need to do next.
Fourth: Think about the money you will need – and work on a realistic financial plan.
Start with your financial aid letter to get a sense of what your first year will cost. Add any other costs not included and put together a budget. Next, look at your “free money” (grants and scholarships). See how much that will cover. What do you need to fill the gap? Now sit down with your family to think things through.
- You may need to think about a payment plan or taking out student loans. Or perhaps you can balance school with a job. Take your time and learn as much as you can about each option. Your financial aid office should be able to help as well.
- If there is a gap that you and your family can’t fill, send an “appeal letter” to your college financial aid office, making a case for why you need more aid to attend. Let them know about any particularly tough financial circumstances in your family. This might work.
Fifth: Finalize your financial aid letter. Accept your aid and, if needed, sign off on loans or a payment plan.
Your financial aid letter is important. It will be updated as you make choices about your aid and loans. Look over any updates with your family or an adult you trust. Make sure your letter is correct and something you can live with. When you are OK with the terms, you will “accept” your financial aid package and, if needed, sign off on any loans or a payment plan.
- The finale: Your first tuition bill. If you are starting school in the fall, it should arrive over the summer. Be sure to pay it on time. And call your college with questions if you think anything is amiss.
- Excellent! You should be in good shape to start school. But keep a close eye on your email and college portal. There will be new requests you need to address. Always read and respond to emails from your college as soon as you can. 🙂
Kim Nauer is the founder of UnderstandingFAFSA.org and a higher education expert at The New School. Her latest questions: How does anyone read a financial aid letter? And will this all-new FAFSA in the fall really be simpler?