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An Overview of the Financial Aid Process

Janet Goebel, Director of the Honors College

For those facing the college financial aid process for the first time, I offer an overview.

Like many schools, the Honors College at IUP tries to deliver with your acceptance letter an estimate of your final cost. The "package" a school sends you is often a combinations of grants, loans, scholarships, and work study.

If you have financial need or want your student to be eligible for all scholarships, the paperwork has to be faced and is best done as early as possible.

Whether you pay the entire cost of college yourself or find assistance is a product of three factors:

  1. your ability to pay as determined by an independent organization that processes your form and shares the information with all universities and colleges where your student has applied
  2. the cost of the school
  3. your student's qualifications for and pursuit of scholarships which sometimes are not linked to financial need

Perceived Ability to Pay

The first factor is your perceived ability to pay. Even if you have a fairly high income, it's worth the time to do the paperwork because some merit scholarships require that a student has done this. The key document here is the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) available from your high school guidance counselor. You will need the same income information you provide to the IRS, so you probably can't do this before January. If you are able to submit this form by February 1, this will increase your chances of eligibility for every possible award and allow schools to give you timely, accurate information of what to expect from them.

The FAFSA ruling on your ability to pay is what all schools must use in awarding government grants, and it will determine your eligibility for subsidized loans and federal work study as well as any need-based scholarships.

No matter where a student attends school or how much the school costs, the amount of aid awarded in FEDERAL grants and subsidized loans will be identical. State programs are a different matter. Find out from your high school guidance counselor what state grants or loans are available and what the rules are for using them. Usually a state only gives grants to state residents. These are normally not transportable to an out-of-state school.

Cost of School

The second factor is the cost of the school. If a school costs $30,000 and the FAFSA determines that you are able to pay $10,000, you have $20,000 in unmet need. If a school costs $9,500 and the FAFSA determines that you are able to pay the same $10,000, you have $0 in unmet need. However, this will NOT affect the amounts you are eligible for in federal grants and subsidized loans. It may affect your eligibility for scholarships at a particular school.


The third factor is scholarships. Some scholarships are portable so a student can bring them along to any school. Some scholarships are awarded by the particular college or university to which the student has applied.

Check with your high school guidance counselor about any portable scholarships that you might qualify for. Scholarships are often available in your own community from churches, local companies, service organizations, or other sources. Local scholarships are usually where a student has the best chance of winning. Pepsi provides all schools with software to do a national scholarship search. Have that search done as early as possible, and apply for everything for which you qualify. It is NOT true that millions of scholarships go unclaimed every year, and you should NOT pay a fee to someone claiming to help you find them. Portable scholarships will usually be reported to the financial aid office of the university the student chooses to attend and will be counted as part of the student's contribution. In some cases, this may affect grants or loans.

Scholarships from a particular university or college sometimes have a special application process. Be sure to ask about this when you apply for admission. At the Honors College students are automatically considered for all scholarships based on their application for admission; there is no separate process.

How do colleges decide which students get scholarships? This is a complicated question. For one thing, many scholarships are provided by donors who have particular restrictions on how their legacy may be used. Sometimes the restriction is geographic. Often it is by major. There are some based on the profession of a parent or even ancestors. Some colleges have a very large endowment and can offer large scholarships. Unfortunately, we don't fall into that category.

Check to see if the scholarships offered are four-year or one-year awards. Look closely at "renewable" awards to see if they are automatically renewed or if there is an annual application process. Note if the scholarship is tied to a particular major. Many students change their major, so this is an important concern.

Assuming you do your FAFSA on time and sit down to compare offers from several schools, be sure to look at the bottom line!

Many high schools now have senior award ceremonies where it is announced that John Smith has a $10,000 scholarship from an expensive school. It's easy to be flattered by the amount and forget that John still has to pay another $15,000 or more every year to attend. Grit your teeth and think about final costs.

Browse the rest of the financial section of our web site for more information on aid details. We hope you will find this information useful. If you are confused, be sure to call us at 1-800-487-9122. If we can't answer your questions, we will direct you to someone who can.

If money is an issue in your college choice, think about value for your dollar. We believe that the Honors College and IUP offer a quality education at an affordable price.