Pay for College

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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.

SCAM ALERT: Never pay for a financial aid or scholarship application, especially on the FAFSA. If a fee is applied, it is a scam and not a legitimate service. If you believe you’ve responded to a scam, report the incidence to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) or to the office of your State Attorney General.

Pay For College Resources


Scholarships are funds provided by a private organization or entity. You do not have to pay back the money you earn in scholarships.

When applying for a scholarship, oftentimes an essay is requested. The essay should answer the given prompt, describe your goals, accomplishments thus far towards those goals, and how selecting you as the recipient is the right choice.

Scholarship Database for Sarasota County

Federal Aid (FAFSA)

Seniors complete 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. 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 highest need 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 offers 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 an application that requires detailed financial information from your parents or guardians, 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/guardians 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, or Expected Family Contribution.After examining your family’s finances and your own earnings/savings, this is the hypothetical amount the government calculates as the approximate dollars for the family to pay towards college. The amount of your EFC also determines whether or not you qualify for many (but not all) types of need-based aid.

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 distributed 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 Florida Bright Futures program, a renewable merit scholarship for students with above-average test scores worth between $2,000 – $6000 per year.

Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Eligibility Chart

  • You have to apply for this award separately 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 be sure to get it done!

Florida Bright Future Scholarship is available for eligible seniors starting December 1st.

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 sources of money managed by the college and are awarded based on a very wide range of criteria. 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. 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/yr 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 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, a Financial Aid Award Letter will outline college-based scholarships, grants, and loans. Some awards are renewable for up to four years, so pay attention when you read the amount(s) to understand the correct total. 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.

In order to figure out what the colleges you’re accepted to will cost, you will need to compare their tuitions and fees and your financial aid. Attached is a PDF you can use to plug in your individual values.

Comparing Cost Worksheets

Private Aid

Once you have exhausted the resources outlined above, it’s time to explore private scholarships. Private scholarships are offered by a wide variety of organizations (like non-profit foundations, social clubs, for-profit companies, etc.) and 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 specific traits such as: first-generation college student, ethnicity, particular skill or talent, or membership to a club or organization by a family member. 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. The only way to be possibly receive an award is to apply. 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!

An 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 hundreds. Those are great odds compared to state and national awards, which can receive thousands or even tens of thousands of applications.