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With the many available scholarships, grants and other options for financial aid, paying for college doesn’t have to be intimidating. There are plenty of resources to help you as you begin planning for your future.
As you think about how to pay for school, be sure to maximize financial aid, grants and scholarships first, then look into educational loans to cover the rest. You can also get a head start on saving with a 529 savings plan.
What’s a 529 Plan?
A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged savings plan that can make it easier to save money for college. You can check out the Securities and Exchange Commission for more details, but here are the basic facts:
- There are two kinds of plans. 529s are either college savings plans, which can be used for college expenses at any college, or prepaid tuition plans, which lock in future tuition at in-state public colleges at the present price. Talk to a financial professional to find out which is best for you.
- Your parents will call the shots. You’ll be the beneficiary of the plan, but your parents or guardians will be the ones to decide when withdrawals can be made.
- The earnings won’t be taxed. This is one of the biggest perks of a 529 plan — it isn’t taxed as long as any withdrawals are made for college expenses. If the money is used for something other than college, like on a new car, tax penalties could apply. Make sure you read the fine print and know the details of your plan.
- You can get a plan in any state. 529 plans vary by state, but you aren’t stuck with the plan from the state where you currently live. If you like another state’s plan, you can get that one instead.
- Anyone can contribute. Make sure you tell other important adults in your life —grandparents, aunts, uncles and the like — about your 529. Next time they’re wondering what to get you for your birthday or graduation, they can make a contribution.
How can I apply for scholarships and financial aid?
- Fill out a FAFSA. The Department of Education’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA, should be the first step in your financial aid journey. You can either get an application from your guidance counselor or download it online — just don’t wait until the last minute. The earlier you can fill out the application, the sooner you’ll know what type and amount of aid you can expect.
- Consider your qualifications. There are thousands of scholarships out there — it’s just a matter of finding the right ones for you. First, see what local scholarships are available in your area, and from your potential college choices. Second, check for scholarships based on your individual strengths, credentials, talents and accomplishments.
- Military scholarships. Having a parent or guardian who is a service member may qualify you for certain scholarships. Talk to them, or contact your installation education center for more information.
What do I need to know about student loans?
After you’ve exhausted all financial aid or scholarship options and saved as much money as you can, it may be time to look into student loans. Consider these factors before accepting student loans:
- Remember, you have to pay them back. Loans are not “free money” and you can end up paying back much more than you originally take out, depending on the interest rate.
- Pay attention to the terms. Make sure you understand the terms of any loans you accept. In addition to the interest rate, you should also pay attention to the repayment schedule and find out about the “grace period,” or how soon you have to pay it back after graduation.
- Go for federal loans first. You can apply for loans through the government or private institutions, but federal loans tend to have lower interest rates and a more generous grace period.
- Check for military-offered loans. Talk to your parents and research whether you’re eligible for any interest-free loans through the military. You can also read about the various scholarships, grants and loans for military students.
Where should I start?
- Talk to your guidance counselor. Take advantage of your counselor’s wealth of experience and make an appointment to discuss your individual options.
- Sit down with your parents or guardians. If you haven’t already, find time to sit down and talk candidly about your plans and your family’s financial situation. You’ll need to know all of your options before you begin formulating a college savings plan. Getting everything down on paper can help keep everyone on the same page.
- Connect with a no-cost personal financial counselor. A financial counselor can give your family more information on your options. Learn more about how to arrange for no-cost financial counseling through Military OneSource.
- Contact the education consultants at Military OneSource for help with college admissions and financial aid applications.
- Do your research. Lots of schools and organizations put their scholarship opportunities online, so a preliminary internet search is a great way to get your feet wet and see what’s out there.
There are many ways to finance your college education; it’s just a matter of seeking out the options that work best for you. Military OneSource has your back to connect you with the best support for the next step in your education — and before you know it, you’ll be walking across the graduation stage with a diploma in your hand.