Your College Journey: Financial Help for Students from Low-Income Families

What if you could achieve your college dreams despite your finances?

If you’re thinking about attending college, it’s easy to feel discouraged by the high cost. College isn’t for everyone; it’s not the guarantee of high-paying work that it used to be, and the debt involved can be crippling. There are many other pathways to a successful future, such as skilled trades and military service, and you may want to consider all your options before making an expensive commitment to a college or university and, more importantly, to yourself. 

If you find that college is right for you, however, then getting the right financial help for students can make these college dreams much more attainable.

Wondering how you can get the financial help you require? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know to get started!

Student Loans: What You Need to Know About the FAFSA

There are many different kinds of financial aid available for college students, but almost all roads to financial help for students begin with completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

You can begin by pulling up the online application and setting up an account. Make sure to fill out all of the information accurately, as this will determine what kinds of aid you are offered and how much you are offered. You may want to look at the application before actually starting it so you can collect the necessary information before beginning the work of filling out the extensive form itself.

In addition to asking detailed questions about your financial situation, the FAFSA also allows you to describe any special circumstances that might affect your financial situation. This is particularly helpful if you are unable to provide any financial information about your parents.

Special Circumstances

There is a question that will ask if you were houseless or on or after the first of July 2018, or if you were self-supporting and/or in danger of becoming houseless. 

If you answer “yes,” you will need to answer some additional questions, and a FAFSA representative may eventually ask for paperwork that proves your claims. Once your claims are verified, you may have an opportunity to describe your special circumstances to the college you wish to attend.

To do so, you will communicate with that college’s financial aid department and describe your situation to them as fully as possible as well as provide any details or documentation they require. This allows the college to discuss specific aid options for your circumstances that you may not be aware of.

Additionally, if you are unable to provide additional financial information about your parents, the college may be able to award you an independent status rather than a dependent status. This will open up additional financial aid options.

Loans: Are They Worth It?

With any luck, you will be offered a variety of financial aid options after completing the FAFSA. This usually comes in the form of grants, scholarships, and loans.

Many students do not know that you are guaranteed to be offered loans after completing the FAFSA. While some loan offers are rarer than others (such as Perkins Loans), everyone will be offered Stafford Loans. Your financial information determines how much of this Stafford Loan amount will be subsidized and how much will be unsubsidized.

This is an important distinction because subsidized loans do not accrue interest as long as you attend college (and taking at least six credit hours). Meanwhile, unsubsidized loans will accrue interest.

Before you accept any loans, research the specifics. Be absolutely sure to read and understand all the paperwork before signing anything. College debt is no joke, and it’s an obligation that deserves serious consideration if you are to avoid dragging a two-ton boulder along into your future.

While you won’t have to make payments on these loans while you are in college, you will need to begin making payments on these loans six months after you graduate or otherwise stop attending school. For millions of people, that day comes much sooner than they think.

It’s possible to defer these payments depending on your post-graduation employment circumstances, and you can lower your monthly payments by selecting an Income-Based Repayment plan. Nonetheless, the only way out of the debt is to repay it. Student loan debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy or by other means. 

Because of that, it’s smart to reduce costs wherever possible. Try to get the financial aid you need in the form of grants and scholarships wherever you can. In addition, many students choose to begin a four-year degree at a local community college, where basic credits can be acquired affordably and later transferred to a four-year institution.

The Secret to Avoiding Application Fees

One thing to keep in mind about the college application process is that there are many potential fees involved. This includes fees for taking standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT, as well as application fees for the colleges you apply to.

The good news is that your financial circumstances may allow you to waive some or even all of these college application fees. To obtain the relevant waivers, however, you must meet one or more of a certain list of requirements.

This list is as follows:

  • You are an orphan or ward of the state
  • You are enrolled in or have eligibility for the National Lunch Program
  • You are homeless, in foster care, or live in subsidized housing
  • You or your family receives public assistance
  • Your family’s annual income meets the government’s Income Eligibility Guidelines
  • You or your family are currently receiving aid from a government program designed for low-income individuals

If you meet one or more of these criteria, you’ll need to contact your college’s financial aid office or counselors to proceed. You will need to fill out the required paperwork and submit it to the college for approval. 

Seek Out Scholarships

Earlier, we mentioned the need to seek scholarships over loans whenever possible. But how do you seek out scholarships?

It’s worth reaching out to your high school or TRIO counselor and asking about scholarships. And you should definitely consult with the financial aid offices of the colleges you intend to apply to.

Definitely check the Department of Labor’s free scholarship search tool, and don’t forget to research opportunities in your individual state as well.

Finally, don’t be afraid to check out various local organizations. Some employers and local businesses may offer special scholarships. And don’t forget to research what different community, religious, civic, and professional organizations have to offer.

One thing to remember about scholarships is that they are not all based entirely on merit. Some are based entirely on your financial situation, which opens up many different scholarship options for low-income students.

Childcare Considerations

If you have children, you may think this makes your college education impossible. After all, most colleges and teachers do not allow parents to bring children into the classroom.

However, you may have access to more childcare options than you previously imagined. If you contact the Department of Human Services, you can find information about childcare subsidies you can use. And if you aren’t already using them, this department can tell you about how to access food stamps, local food pantries, and programs such as Families First and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families that can ease your financial burdens.

It will still be difficult juggling raising children and putting yourself through college, but the final result may be worth it.

Reaching Out to Local Churches

Previously, we touched on reaching out to local religious organizations. However, some students may be hesitant to reach out if they do not belong to that organization, are not religious, or are members of communities that are marginalized or otherwise oppressed by one or more religious institutions.

Certain churches and religious organizations may indeed reserve awards for their members or have hurtful and exclusionary policies, views, or values. For many institutions, however, these scholarships are a way of serving the entire community instead of only serving their congregation.

When you think about reaching out to these churches and religious organizations, choose ones that align with your values as much as possible, and remember that it’s not really any different from reaching out to other local businesses and community organizations. While you won’t get good news from every single contact you make, your hard work and courage might just be rewarded.

Some religious organizations such as Salvation Army may even be able to help you get a donated car.

Eyes on the Prize

Our tips will help you secure the financial help for students that you deserve. But our final tip may be the most important: keep your eyes on the prize!

It’s inevitable that you will feel discouraged as you try to find the financial aid you need. You won’t be able to find every resource that you’re looking for, and the sheer amount of research you will need to do can make things pretty intimidating.

That’s why it’s important to keep your eyes on the prize. As annoying and discouraging as things can be, it may be worth the time and effort you put in to achieve a college education.

Some recent research found that in 2018, those with college degrees earned a median income of $24,900 more than those with only a high school diploma. The amount of extra income you can bring in with a college degree can change your life, but not until you make it all the way through college, and not unless you are smart about student loan debt.

Financial Help for Students: Final Thoughts

Now you know more about getting financial help for students even if you have low income. But what if you could save money as a student each and every month?

The Lifeline Program helps low-income individuals receive free or heavily discounted communication devices and services. By applying to the program, you can potentially have more money each month to spend on school-related expenses.

Ultimately, every dollar you save helps make your college dreams closer to coming true.

Good luck!