Financial aid. It’s the one little detail that nobody tells you about when you’re thinking about college, and it can be scary to come unequipped to deal with this under-taught subject. Don’t fret, you’re not alone; we’re here to help!
Getting Started: Understanding College Financial Aid
While you’re submitting applications for college, you also want to fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (commonly referred to as the “FAFSA”). You can do this online on the FAFSA website.
In order to fill out your FAFSA, there are a few pieces of information you will need:
- Your Social Security Number
- If you are not a U.S. citizen, your Alien Registration Number will be used instead.
- Your federal income tax returns – this includes documents such as your W-2s; any record of money earned.
- Records of investments (if applicable).
- Records of untaxed income (if applicable).
If your parent(s)/guardian(s) filed taxes with you as their dependent, you will also need the same information and documents from them.
Note: the FAFSA uses the previous year’s tax data. For example, if you are applying to school for the 2024-25 academic year, you will need your tax information from 2022.
While completing your FAFSA, you will also be prompted to enter up to 10 Federal School Codes to allow the schools you’ve applied for to access your FAFSA information and determine your eligibility for federal financial aid. Many colleges and universities will have their school code listed on their website or will provide it on an acceptance letter, the FAFSA form also has a school search function, however, you can always call your desired school’s financial aid office to request their code.
Once you’ve been accepted into a college or university, their financial aid office will use your FAFSA information to help determine your financial aid package. Fun fact: 100% of Iowa Wesleyan students receive some form of financial assistance.
After the FAFSA
Your school’s financial aid office will send you a letter detailing your costs, the grants and scholarships you’ve been awarded, and your loan options. Each school’s award letter may look a little different, but most will look something like this: (Notice: this letter does not represent a real financial aid letter, or genuine costs and awards of any student, this is merely an example)
What does this mean?
- Federal Pell Grant – this is the grant provided to you based on the information you provided on your FAFSA, the cost of your school, and your student status (part-time vs. full-time).
- Any grant is award money that you do not need to pay back.
- Scholarship, Grant, or Award – if you are awarded a scholarship outside of your institution (such as when you apply for an external scholarship), you will need to communicate this with your financial aid office so your award letter can be adjusted.
- Scholarships are award money that you do not need to pay back.
- Your school may offer you scholarships, grants, and/or awards for a variety of reasons: merit (high academic achievement, either overall or in a specific field), athletic, group affiliation (such as honor societies or Greek organizations), religious affiliations, etc. Don’t be afraid to contact your financial aid office about potential scholarships that might be available to you.
- Scholarships may come in different amounts and may change from year to year. It’s important to check your award letter to make sure you understand how much your scholarships, grants, and awards cover. Not every scholarship is a “full-ride” (meaning it covers all of your expenses).
- Some scholarships are awarded by external parties. For a full list of IW scholarships as well as recommended outside scholarships, check out our Financial Assistance page!
- Eligibility for certain grants and scholarships may depend on you being classified as a full-time student and may also require that you continue a degree within a particular program or field with certain minimum grades.
- Loans – your financial aid letter will offer you loans, often regardless of if you need them or not. It’s important to consider your costs against your rewards to determine if you need to take a federal student loan or not; accepting an unneeded loan can lead to unnecessary costs after you graduate. Remember: all loans need to be repaid.
- Types of federal student loans
- Subsidized – when loans are necessary, subsidized loans are generally recommended as they do not start accruing interest until after you either graduate or stop attending college.
- Unsubsidized – these loans will begin accumulating interest immediately.
- Federal student loans do not need to be repaid until you either graduate or stop attending; many colleges and universities will offer an exit course to graduating seniors to help guide them through the process.
- Federal student loans will usually offer a lower interest rate than personal loans, making them more financially convenient.
- You are not required to accept federal student loans; you are welcome to pay any fees not covered by your award out-of-pocket if you are able.
- Types of federal student loans
- Federal Work Study – Work-study programs allow you to work within the college or university to help cover the costs of your education. Work study positions will vary based on the institution and availability but can range from student-teaching to janitorial work. Discuss with your financial aid advisor how work study payments are distributed at your institution to make sure your money is going where it needs to. Note: In order to access these funds, you will need to participate in your institution’s work study program; not participating in work study is a forfeiture of this aid.
- Tuition & Fees – this is the cost of your course credit hours as well as student fees.
- Room & Board – if you live on campus, you will also be paying for your room and a meal plan, some institutions offer a variety of plans that can range in price (this letter shows cost adjustments based on a change in room).
If you still have an outstanding balance on your account after your award letter, you can set up a payment plan with your institution’s financial aid office. Remember: an unresolved balance can lead to a hold on your account, which may prevent you from accessing your classes, housing, meal plans, or transcripts. If you have any questions or concerns, never hesitate to contact your institution’s financial aid office.