Financial Aid and Merit Scholarships


The high cost of college tuition leads many families to consider additional funding options. Those who qualify for assistance based on their family’s finances may receive need-based financial aid, which could include grants, loans, or a combination of the two.   Families who don’t qualify for aid based on financial need can still consider loans and merit scholarships. The key is to start early, research your options and know the facts about financial aid and scholarships.

Estimating Financial Need

Online calculators  give you an estimate of how much need-based aid your family will qualify for, if any. The estimator takes about 15 minutes to complete and will give you an EFC (expected family contribution), or the yearly amount your family is likely to be asked to pay.

Most colleges also offer their own net price calculator which includes more detail on grants or merit based awards that your student could qualify for.  To find these sites, google “net price calculator” and the name of the college you are considering.

Loans, Grants, Work-Study

The three main types of need-based financial aid are loans, grants, and work-study.  Loans are awards that are paid back with interest once the borrower graduates from college.  Families should consider government backed loans when available, since private lenders can have significantly higher rates.  Grants do not have to be paid back and are given either by the government (state or federal) or directly dispersed from the college or university. Work-study requires the student to take a part time job on campus upon enrollment. Money earned by the student through work-study can be paid directly toward tuition or given to the student to use for books, living expenses, and other campus fees.

Applying For Aid

To be eligible for financial aid, all students must fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).  This data is sent to the federal government clearinghouse, which uses the form to determine your overall financial need based on your family’s income and assets. The FAFSA must be completed by the parent and can be found at

A growing number of colleges and universities require an additional form called the CSS (College Scholarship Service) Profile.  Students must check whether or not a school requires the CSS Profile and should pay close attention to the deadline for submitting the form, which is typically earlier than the deadline for the FAFSA.  Information on the CSS Profile can be found here

What is Prior-Prior Year (PPY)?

The FAFSA has changed and as of October of 2016, it will allow students to report tax information from a prior-prior tax year (PPY) allowing tax information from two years ago.  This will also allow students and their families to fill out the FAFSA form earlier than ever before in hopes to have their financial aid packages before making college decisions.   This is one more reason to plan ahead and start early.

Further Research

A great place to start your own search for financial aid is On this website students can determine their eligibility for aid, print out application forms, and view the current status of their application. On, students can get more information about the following programs: Federal Pell Grants, Federal Stafford Loans, Federal PLUS Loans, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Federal Work Study, and Perkins Loans.

Merit Scholarships

The important thing to know about merit scholarships is that most of it is awarded by the colleges themselves to students in their applicant pool.  There is over $13 billion in merit aid awarded each year. Of that total,  $11 billion is given by the colleges and $2 billion is awarded by state governments which are typically in-state inducements (such as the Georgia Hope Scholarship).  There are also outside merit scholarships (such as the Coca Cola scholarships or small awards given by your local Chamber of Commerce), but these represent a small percentage of the total aid money awarded.  The best way to qualify for merit scholarship money is to carefully develop your college application list to include institutions that are likely to give you merit aid.

Many colleges consider all their applicants for merit money, while others have a special application.  There is often a priority application deadline, so be sure to plan ahead.

A good place to start when looking for merit scholarships:

Financial Aid Articles

2016 Guide to Financial Aid

Glossary of CSS Profile Terms

How to maximize financial aid eligibility

Common financial aid myth