Applying for Financial Aid

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Prospective college students will soon be anxiously checking their mailboxes for acceptance letters from colleges. But along with the elation of getting in comes the confusing financial aid process.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Here in the States, the good news is you got into an Ivy League school. And that's the bad news, too, because next you're going to have to pay for it. Or mom and dad will. It's not just the Ivy's. Many colleges can cost a small fortune. There is help. The college board says students got more than $150 billion in financial aid in the last academic year, but lots of students miss out on the money because they are not filling out the correct paperwork.

I spoke earlier with DAY TO DAY's personal finance expert, Michelle Singletary. There is one crucial document for students and parents, Michelle reminded me. It's the free application for federal student aid.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY: It is the form if you want federal aid in the form of grants, scholarships, work-study or student loans. You have to fill out this form. And the time is now. The sooner you fill out that form, the more likely you will be eligible for the free money that's out there, because that goes first. So, you want to get on this right away.

CHADWICK: Get in line right away, and you're more likely to get the free money rather than loans and things.

SINGLETARY: That's right. You know, there's limited amount of the free money, scholarships and grants. So, the sooner you put in the form, you're in that queue ahead of others. Now you can always fill it out after January to get the loans. Because, you know, they're going to lend you money whenever.

But you want to get it in. And parents fill this out. You don't have to wait to file your tax forms. Lots of people think that. You can estimate, because by now, you've got your last pay stub. You know what you made for 2006. But it's crucial that you fill out this form. And also, fill it out whether you think you are eligible or not.

CHADWICK: Really? You say whether you have - you think you make too much money or you're not even sure you're kid is going to go school. Who knows? But you're saying, go ahead. Fill the thing out.

SINGLETARY: That's right. Lots of middle income or high-income families think, well, I shouldn't bother. My kid's not going to get any financial aid. But that financial aid form takes in consideration a lot of things: the size of your family, how much the college costs. I mean, looks at the student's assets, your assets. If you don't fill it out, you're not going to get anything. If you fill it out, there's a chance your kid will get something. And listen, even a $500 grant or scholarship or a work-study is going to go a long way to help with -especially how much college costs these days.

CHADWICK: You know, Michelle, your kids are too young, but mine are not. I've gone through these forms. They're a little bit complicated. And I often thought to myself, I wish someone would just tell me how to fill this thing out. That would be a big help.

SINGLETARY: There is a lot of free advice now on the Web - good, non-biased advice. There's two Web sites that I recommend that you go if you're beginning this process. One is the College Board's Web site. And that's collegeboard.com. And the second Web site is www.F-I-N-aid.org - short for financialaid.org - two excellent Web sites. They've got a calculator on both of those sites that helps you walk through how to fill out the form and other information about how to fill it out. Go to these Web sites. It will be very helpful for you.

CHADWICK: Michelle, thank you. Michelle Singletary. She's the author of the syndicated column, The Color of Money. And she's DAY TO DAY's regular guest for personal financial discussions and advice, and there's some for parents with kids who may be going to college.

Thanks, Michelle.

SINGLETARY: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: If you have a money question for Michelle, we'd love to get you an answer. Go to our Web site, npr.org. Click on the Contact Us link. It's found on the top of every page. And please, be sure to include Michelle in the subject line.

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