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5 Steps to Help First-Generation Students Navigate Funding for College

By Krista Amundson

Navigating how to pay for college may seem like an overwhelming task – especially if you are a first-generation college student. You may feel like you have been dropped into in a maze of loans, scholarships and grants where a wrong turn could end in a huge loan bill at the end of your studies.

girl-cap-gown-3As a first-generation college student, you will likely have to navigate your own path, but you don’t have to go it alone. It may seem like a big task but don’t worry – with a little planning, research and support from your family, community or school – you can set yourself up for success and find the right financial path for you. Follow these five steps to help guide your journey to funding your college degree.

1. Do your research

There are many ways to fund your college degree, and it is important to understand the differences between each type of funding. Remember, your expenses each year are more than just tuition. You’ll need to consider additional costs like fees, books, room and board and transportation. Planning for these before you start will help you avoid surprises during the year. Types of assistance to look for include:

Aid from the Federal Government. Federal student financial aid is provided by the government to help you pay for educational expenses. Grants, scholarships, loans and work-study are types of federal student aid. You must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which opens for application on October 1 each year, to apply for this financial assistance.

  • Federal student grants and scholarships are money that does not need to be repaid. Grants are often based on financial need, while scholarships are based on academic or other achievements.
  • Federal student loans are money that you borrow and must pay back with interest. It is important to borrow only what you need. Make sure you understand the borrowing conditions, including the interest rate, repayment terms and qualifications before you accept a loan.
  • Federal work study provides part-time employment to earn money while you study.

Aid from your State Government. The type and amount of aid will be different depending on the state. Check with your high school guidance counselor about what is available in your state.

Aid from your College. Many colleges offer scholarships and grants that are awarded based on financial need or merit. Some colleges use the FAFSA to determine aid, but you may need to fill out their own financial form to apply. Contact a college financial aid offer to learn more about what your college offers and how to apply.

Aid from Private Scholarships. Scholarships are a great way to help fund your degree and do not need to be repaid. There are many scholarship websites that can help you find scholarships for 2018 and beyond; our Student, Parent & Family Resources page has a great list of places to start. Remember, you should never pay for a service to find scholarships for you.

2.Identify what makes you special

There are many generic scholarship opportunities that are posted on large scholarship websites. Applying for a national scholarship means that there will be a lot of competition to get an award.

Instead, think of what makes you special – being a first-generation student, your cultural identity, a unique challenge that demonstrates your persistence – to help narrow down your search to those scholarships with qualifications that are tailored to you.

It is also important to look for scholarships locally. There is often less competition for these scholarships compared to a national award.

3. Make a plan

It is never too early to start looking for financial aid opportunities, but don’t be discouraged if you get a late start. Once you understand what aid is available and how to apply, it is time to start planning, so you don’t miss any deadlines.

Don’t try to do too much all at once or put off your application until right before the deadline. Give yourself plenty of time to find the information you need to apply and to tailor any personal statements required for the award.

4. Ask for help

It can be confusing to understand all the jargon that comes along with financial aid and what it means for your potential loan repayment after college. It helps to have a mentor to help you navigate the twists and turns to break down some of the complicated borrowing conditions.

You may be able to find someone to help from your family, school or community.

If you need help, try asking someone like:

  • Your high school counselor
  • A college’s financial aid officer
  • A member of your community that you trust and has been through college
  • Trusted websites, like Strive for College, that offer free online mentoring

Check out websites like I’m First! and First in the Family to get advice from other first-generation students who have been through the same process.  

5. Take action

Now you are ready to get started on your journey! Use your plan to set realistic goals to apply for financial aid. There are many awards that are granted on a first-come, first served basis. Don’t miss out on potential money because you applied too late.

Applying early gives you time to navigate in a new direction if you reach an unexpected dead-end. There are many paths to take and it will take some time to find what is right for you. Be patient and do your research so you know all your options.


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