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Understanding College Financial Aid

July 24, 2014

It may only be the end of July, but back-to-school season is upon us. For some this may mean new pencil boxes and crayons, but for others the start of a new school year is associated with a hefty bill. College and university price tags can be intimidating, but financial aid is available to help ease the burden. Monetary assistance from the federal government, state and school is primarily based on need and merit. Aside from loans, “free money” in the form of scholarships and grants are also available. Odds are there is some form of student financial aid that is obtainable and will help tuition seem less daunting.

Completing your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an important first step. Eligibility for financial aid is determined through this form which calculates Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). Factors including household size, income, assets, and how many household members are in college are used to assess how much assistance is needed to bridge the gap between what the EFC is and the total cost for tuition, room/board and fees. It is important to keep in mind that most financial aid is awarded on a first come first serve basis. Those looking to receive the most assistance possible should complete the FAFSA as soon after the first of the year as possible. The form also needs to be completed each year in order to be considered for financial aid the following term.

The government and academic institution have the most control when determining what assistance will be provided, because a good portion is based on financial need and educational merit. However, there are many scholarships up for grabs through the school, local organizations and community groups that can meet financial needs. Scholarships are awarded for a wide variety of reasons including athletic performance, academic success, community involvement and course of study. Guidance counselors are a great resource and can point students in the right direction when searching for scholarships. Some scholarships have a more intensive application process than others, requiring letters of recommendation, a resume and written essay. Many essay-based scholarships are looking to award creative responses to questions about community, goals or opinions. Look to newspapers, local websites and civic organizations for opportunities, and make sure to keep track of deadlines so that opportunities are not missed.

College is an exciting time filled with new experiences and challenges. There is some level of financial aid available for everyone. Explore your options and use your available resources to best understand where to focus your efforts. School Financial Aid Departments are there to explain details of award letters, loan authorizations and scholarships. They can ensure the proper steps are taken to secure financial aid plans and verify details of federal, state and school funds. Your local bank is also a great resource when looking to plan for this expense and figure out what financial steps are best to take based on your personal wants and needs. Elements of financial aid may be complex and difficult to decipher, but being aware of how to get started on the path to uncovering which financial assistance is best for you or your student is a great first step.

James Oosterman is the Vice President of Melrose Bank. He can be reached by telephone at 781-665-2500, online at or on Facebook at

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