The path to college sounds like a short check list in theory: graduate high school, take some tests, apply to schools, and hopefully get accepted. But the reality includes so much more than this. And it’s even more daunting if you don’t have experienced parents to help you navigate the college roadmap.
For first-generation college students, you’re the first one in your family to attend college. This means you might not have the family help and resources you need to find the right college for you—or at the right price. Here’s where to look if you’re a first-generation college student.
Planning Should Come with Help
Preparing to pay for college shouldn’t be done alone, but for many students, it can feel like that. A 2018 report from the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) found that 65% of African American youth felt that high school prepared them for college. But they also said their biggest hurdles were financial difficulties, concerns about standardized tests, and the lack of school support services.
Khalilah Long, Communications Manager for UNCF, says you should look for help while still in school.
“One way students should seek help is by having more access to support within their schools,” Long says. “In other words, more access to individuals who can provide support and instill college readiness environments such as guidance counselors.”
Reach out to teachers, counselors, administrators, and anyone else while you’re still in high school to help you find resources. Where you live and the school you want to go to might mean different resources for you. Teachers and other school officials want you to excel long after you leave high school. They might have leads on a local school with the most financial aid options or where to look for scholarships and grants. Tap into as many resources from adults who can guide you in the right direction.
Start as Early as Possible
No matter how young you are, it’s never too soon to start exploring ways to get money for college.
Kevin Ladd, Chief Operating Officer of Scholarships.com, encourages young people to start applying for free aid right away.
“Today. Now. If you are a freshman or sophomore in high school and think it is too early, [it’s] not,” Ladd says. “There may [be] scholarships for which you qualify now, and they are going to be less competitive due to the relatively low number of students being as proactive as you are in searching for scholarships early.”
Starting to search for scholarships and grants now not only gets you money sooner, but it will also help you understand the application process. You’ll have a better idea of how to write a great essay or what it takes to put together a winning entry.
Use Your Family’s EFC to Your Advantage
Once you complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), your award letter will tell you how much your family pays towards your education, otherwise known as your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
Most colleges offer EFC calculators on their websites so you can estimate how much your college will cost. Plug in your EFC on the college website of your choice to see what it will cost you to attend. Explore a number of schools you believe meet your needs so you can see how costs may vary across them. You might qualify for school-sponsored scholarships and grants.
Ladd suggests searching for scholarships at every level and location. Where you live, the college you choose, your family’s background, and your major all play a part in scholarships and grants you might qualify for.
“Reviewing, applying and keeping track of scholarship applications naturally takes considerably more time, but if done efficiently can produce some great results,” Ladd says. “[And] completing the FAFSA the minute it becomes available in October of each year is critical. Need-based money is first come, first served.”
Understand How Much Other Money You’ll Need
While getting as many scholarships and grants as possible should be your main goal, make plans in case you need to get money elsewhere.
Your FAFSA will outline how much money you’ll qualify for when it comes to need-based federal loans (subsidized loans), but if that’s not enough, there are other loans you can apply for.
- Unsubsidized loans. These are federal loans available to anyone who requests it, and your school determines how much you’ll need based on your cost of attendance.
- Private student loans. These come from private lenders rather than the government. You can apply for one at a bank, credit union, or even an online lender. Your credit will be checked so if it’s not that great, you might need a cosigner.
Organize Your Resources
After your free money that comes from scholarships and grants, see if you can find any other money from your savings, your family or your relatives before turning to loans. The less you have to borrow, the less you’ll have to pay back after graduation or even while you’re still in school.
Being the first in your family to go to college can be overwhelming, but use the pressure to fuel financing your education as seamlessly as possible. Ask for help when you need it and remember that even if your parents can’t help you, there are others who can help you on your college journey.
Dori Zinn is a personal finance writer that focuses on handling credit and debt, smart budgeting, side hustles, loan management, and retirement.