A whole community of financial aid advisors from high school counselors to college administrators are ready with free help and advice to help you grab a piece of the almost $47 billion in aid available in the country.
"Those of us in financial aid have been more aggressive in the last 20 years to make the public more aware of how to get money into their hands for an education," said Ray Holbrook, Tennessee Technological University's director of financial aid.
Those efforts have turned into a wealth of free information in print and on the Internet. The U.S. Department of Education's site at www.ed.gov/studentaid offers the latest details on grants, loans, work-study programs and tax credits, such as the Hope and Lifetime Learning credits. The site offers an electronic Free Application for Financial Aid, or FAFSA, which is the basis for all federal and state aid and is often required for scholarships.
If you don't have access to a computer, don't give up. The financial aid office at the school you want to attend is one of the best places to begin the search for free information. Besides being well-versed in the federal and state aid opportunities, these financial aid workers will be aware of any scholarships or aid offered by local groups, companies or private citizens.
Other good sources of student aid information may be available from foundations, civic groups and religious and community organizations. Look for sources usually listed under "student aid" or "financial aid" in local libraries.
The Internal Revenue Service can even help with their web site explaining tax credits for the Hope and Lifetime Learning credits at www.irs.treas.gov.
To high school and non-traditional students, Holbrook suggests the motto "file early and correctly." Many types of financial aid are on a first-come, first-served basis, and time is money in the race for completing the paperwork.
"It's like watching dollars sift through the hourglass," Holbrook said. "If you fill out your application incorrectly or don't complete it, it slows the process and you may miss out on aid because of bad timing. Although there are millions of dollars available, the money for some grants, work-study programs and supplemental loans can run out as early as March or April."
It's best to have financial aid paperwork or scholarship applications submitted to your choice of schools by mid-February. Applying for federal student aid is free, so the only investment is a little time.
Many post-secondary institutions work closely with high school guidance counselors to help their students fill out forms, but the deadlines and rules can be overwhelming for non-traditional students who don't have access to such ready advice.
Holbrook wants to bolster the confidence of anyone who is letting a lack of information stand in the way of education.
"I encourage every potential student I meet to think about their choices," said Holbrook. "I ask, 'Do you understand how your life choices will be different and more fulfilling if you pursue education beyond high school?'"For more information about financial aid, call Tennessee Tech's financial aid office at (931) 372-3073.