Paying for College

There are many sources of financial assistance available to help pay for college. Here we review the different types of financial aid, forms everyone should fill out, a comprehensive list of scholarship opportunities, some strategies for reducing costs and more.


Financial Aid Resources

Federal Aid (FAFSA)

Everyone should begin the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon as possible starting October 1st. Completing the FAFSA is the only way to determine your eligibility for many different kinds of scholarships based on financial need. There are thousands of dollars in need-based awards available to students who qualify, but only if you submit the FAFSA.You need to know if you qualify for need-based aid (or not) as early in the year as possible. Need-based scholarships can be a big part of your overall funding for college. The most well-known is the Federal PELL Grant, which is a multi-billion dollar scholarship program that can be worth over $5,000 per year for the nation’s neediest students. Many colleges also offer their own need-based award programs, which can range into the tens of thousands of dollars, and some local scholarships are need-based as well. They all rely on results from the FAFSA to guide their decisions. Filling out the FAFSA gets you potential access to all of these resources and more, so it’s important to know if you qualify. But it’s equally important to know if you do not qualify so that you can limit your search to scholarships that are not based on financial need. Either way, completing the FAFSA gives you this crucial information, and the sooner you have it, the better.

The FAFSA is a long and complex application, and will require detailed financial information from your parents, so you’ll have to plan ahead. Make time to sit down with them to explain how important it is, and plan to get started in October of your senior year. Although it’s best if your parents have completed their current-year tax return before filling out the FAFSA, that is not a requirement. There is also a much shorter version of the FAFSA that will give you an easy but unofficial result. It might be worth a quick check before spending time on the actual FAFSA.

Once you have submitted your FAFSA, you’ll have to wait several days for the results. Eventually you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), which is a summary of your answers plus vital information on your eligibility status. Be sure to review this entire report carefully, especially to see if there were any errors or problems while processing your information. Next, look for the EFC value, which stands for Expected Family Contribution. This is the main result of the FAFSA. After examining your parents’ finances, this is the hypothetical amount the government calculates they should be able to pay out of pocket for college this year. The amount of your EFC also determines whether or not you qualify for many (but not all) types of need-based aid. For example, only those students whose EFC is less than 5200 are eligible for PELL grants, and there are similar EFC limits for other need-based awards (details vary).

If you need help completing the FAFSA, there are many different resources here in Sarasota county. Below is a growing list of people and organizations who offer free assistance. Only about half of students who are eligible for aid actually complete and submit the FAFSA, which means the rest miss out on thousands of dollars of free money for college every year. Don’t let that happen to you.


State Aid

There are many different types of state scholarships for Florida students, some based on financial need and others based on academic merit. Awards based on financial need will be determined by your FAFSA results and assigned by your college. You won’t need to do anything special to get most of them, which is another reason the FAFSA is an important first step. You should also be aware that several of the need-based state awards are given on a first-come, first-serve basis, which is yet another reason to get the FAFSA done early!The most well-known state scholarship is the Bright Futures program, a renewable merit scholarship for students with above-average test scores worth between $2,000 – $3,000 per year.

You have to apply for this award separately, and the requirements can be tricky, so be sure to get help from your high school guidance office. You only get one opportunity to apply for this award during senior year, so give it your best effort.

Click here to see all available scholarships from the State of Florida.

College-based Aid

Most colleges offer some scholarship programs of their own in addition to federal, state and private awards. These “college-based” scholarships are funded by various pots of money managed by the college, and are awarded based on a very wide range of criteria. Colleges offer these scholarships to certain students to encourage them to attend. Some colleges have more of this money to give away than others, and every college has different priorities, so it’s impossible to predict what kind of college-based scholarships you may be offered without actually applying to the college in question.This is one reason students are usually encouraged to apply to several different colleges, in order to see how much (if any) college-based aid each is willing to offer. Some colleges may not offer a particular student any aid at all, while other colleges might be willing to offer significant amounts of aid to that very same student. Many are surprised to discover that an expensive college that offers significant college-based aid can actually become more affordable than an inexpensive college that offers none. For example, if University A costs $40,000/yr and University B costs $25,000 it would seem like B is cheaper. But if University A is willing to offer $20,000/yr in college-based scholarships, and University B offers nothing, now the actual cost of University A is lower. Keep this possibility in mind as you compare the cost of different schools.

Each college will determine your eligibility based on their own criteria, although you must complete and submit the FAFSA in order to be considered for any need-based college awards. Once you have been accepted by the college, it should send you an Award Letter which will outline any college-based scholarships they are willing to offer. Most of the awards are renewable for up to four years, so pay attention when you read the amount(s), since they may be aggregate values for all four years combined. Be sure to keep these award letters in a safe place so that you can refer to them later. If you apply to several different colleges you will need to be able to compare all of their offers side-by-side to help you make the best choice.

Private Aid

Once you have exhausted the resources outlined above, it’s time to explore private scholarships. These awards are completely separate from everything we’ve discussed so far, so even if you didn’t qualify for the others, don’t give up yet! Private scholarships are offered by a wide variety of organizations (like non-profit foundations, social clubs, for-profit companies, etc.) and so they have an equally wide variety of eligibility criteria. Some are based on academic merit, others on financial need, and others on specific characteristics like gender, race, college major, or even things like being a first-generation college student or having divorced parents. There are hundreds of different private scholarships in Sarasota County alone, so you will very likely qualify for at least some of them no matter who you are.Unlike federal, state and college-based awards, however, private scholarships aren’t just automatically awarded to those who qualify. You have to actively search for them, submit an application, and then you have to be selected by the donor in a competitive process. Needless to say, this is all very time-consuming and discourages many students from applying. But those who are willing to make time to apply for private scholarships are often rewarded: the more applications you submit, the greater your chances of winning. You may think you don’t have time, but think about it this way–if you spend two hours completing applications, and win a $2,000 scholarship, that’s like earning $1,000 per hour! Even if you spend 10 hours to win $2,000 that’s still a better hourly wage than you are likely to make for many years to come.

It’s time well-spent!
Students in Sarasota County are particularly lucky, because we have an unusually high number of private scholarships–more than Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties combined! If you had to choose one county to look for these awards, you couldn’t do much better than Sarasota: over $3 MILLION is given to Sarasota County students every year! And that’s an important point, because there are private scholarships offered at the local, state and national level, and figuring out which ones to apply to can be overwhelming. The most effective strategy is to focus on Sarasota county awards first. There are only so many high school seniors in Sarasota, so the number of applicants for local awards is limited to a few hundred at most. Those are great odds compared to state and national awards, which can receive thousands or even tens of thousands of applications. Your time is limited, so use it wisely and focus on all the wonderful opportunities right here in Sarasota.

For a comprehensive listing of private scholarships in Sarasota county click here.