Paying for College

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.

College costs can vary dramatically depending on their type, location, and other factors, ranging from $2,000 per year for a part-time student at a two-year college to more than $60,000 per year for a full-time student at an elite private university. Obviously then, the type of college you choose is going to have a big impact on the amount of money you may end up paying for your education. But understanding how much each college might actually cost is more complex than simply looking for prices on their respective websites. That's because the “sticker price” of each school is only a general guideline–most schools, along with federal and state governments and some private entities, offer various scholarships, grants and loans that can help to reduce the financial burden of college. Understanding the various options for financial assistance (and how they apply to you) is crucial to developing a clear perspective on how much college might actually cost. As we will see, the end results are not always as intuitive as they may seem. A seemingly “cheap” school that offers no financial aid could end up costing you more than an “expensive” school that offers a significant scholarship package.

Let's take a step back for a minute and look at paying for college through a broader lens. No matter who you are, no matter what college you choose, or what you plan to major in, there are really only three potential sources of money for college:

1. Cash

2. Loans

3. Scholarships

Everyone pays for college using some combination of these three, so the more you have of one, the less you need of the others. The trick to making college most affordable is to keep your cash payments and loans to a minimum, which means earning as many scholarships as possible. It’s important to note that scholarships are free money that do not need to be repaid (unlike cash or loans) so the more scholarships you can get, the less you will have to pay for your college education.

Everyone pays for college using some combination of these three, so the more you have of one, the less you need of the others. The trick to making college most affordable is to keep your cash payments and loans to a minimum, which means earning as many scholarships as possible. It’s important to note that scholarships are free money that do not need to be repaid (unlike cash or loans) so the more scholarships you can get, the less you will have to pay for your college education.

Many people mistakenly believe that scholarships are only available to a small percentage of elite students, or to those living in extreme poverty, but that’s not the case. There are a huge number of scholarship programs available to a wide variety of students, if you know when and where to look for them. And that’s precisely what we aim to help you with.

In order to earn as many scholarships as possible, you’re going to need a plan. The money may be free, but you still have to work for it. And it’s important to understand that there are many different things you’ll have to work on: filling out forms, writing essays, getting letters of recommendation and financial information from your parents and transcripts from your schools… it all requires a lot of time and preparation. But the students who invest the most effort are often rewarded with the most scholarships.

If you plan to apply for college scholarships, the most important thing to know is this: the time to apply for most scholarships is very shot, and only during senior year. This should be your main concern when making a plan. Not only are scholarship applications only for seniors, but most are only available for a few weeks between January to April of senior year. As you may already know, that’s a very busy time for high school seniors. But it’s also your only chance to apply for scholarships, so be ready to make some sacrifices to get everything done. While four months may seem like a long time, it will go by very quickly, and deadlines will come and go each week.

Knowing that your time will be limited, you obviously won’t be able to fill out every application for every scholarship. Not even close. So you’ll need some way of narrowing down the options. The best plan is to apply for the most valuable scholarships first. Because bigger awards usually have harder applications, they work on smaller-but-easier applications first and then run out of time. Not good. You want to tackle the big ones first. Not only are they worth far more per hour of your time, but completing the big applications requires you to compile certain information that will also be required for other scholarship applications later on, saving you precious time down the road.

So how do you know which scholarship applications to spend your time on? And which scholarships are the most valuable? Answers to those questions will be a bit different for each individual, but first you’ll need to understand the options. All of the thousands of different awards out there fall into just four types of scholarships:

1. Federal Aid (FAFSA)

2. State Aid

3. College-based Aid

4. Private Aid

Every student who earns scholarships will be receiving aid money from some combination of these four. We’re going to explore each of these scholarship types in detail to help you understand the value of each one, so that you can focus your efforts on the best options. Remember: students who submit qualifying applications for all four of these sources could end up with the majority of their college costs covered, but only if you take the time to apply!

Everyone should begin 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.

You need to know if you qualify for need-based aid (or not) as early in the year as possible. Need-based scholarships can be a big part of your overall funding for college. 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 neediest 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 gets you 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 a long and complex application, and will require detailed financial information from your parents, 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 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, which stands for Expected Family Contribution. This is the main result of the FAFSA. After examining your parents’ finances, this is the hypothetical amount the government calculates they should be able to pay out of pocket for college this year. The amount of your EFC also determines whether or not you qualify for many (but not all) types of need-based aid. For example, only those students whose EFC is less than 5200 are eligible for PELL grants, and there are similar EFC limits for other need-based awards (details vary).

If you need help completing the FAFSA, there are many different resources here in Sarasota county. Below is a growing list of people and organizations who offer free assistance. Only about half of students who are eligible for aid actually complete and submit the FAFSA, which means the rest miss out on thousands of dollars of free money for college every year. Don’t let that happen to you.

Where to Get FAFSA Help

Need help with the FAFSA? Information that we suggest: Edvisor’s Guide to Filling out the FAFSA. Attend Education Foundation workshops on filling out the FAFSA.

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 given 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 Bright Futures program, a renewable merit scholarship for students with above-average test scores worth between $2,000 – $3,000 per year. You have to apply for this award separately, and the requirements can be tricky, 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 give it your best effort.

Click here to see all available scholarships from the State of Florida.

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 pots of money managed by the college, and are awarded based on a very wide range of criteria. Colleges offer these scholarships to certain students to encourage them to attend. 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. Some colleges may not offer a particular student any aid at all, while other colleges might be willing to offer significant amounts of aid to that very same student. 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 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 possibility 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, it should send you an Award Letter which will outline any college-based scholarships they are willing to offer. Most of the awards are renewable for up to four years, so pay attention when you read the amount(s), since they may be aggregate values for all four years combined. Be sure to keep these award letters in a safe place so that you can refer to them later. 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.

Once you have exhausted the resources outlined above, it’s time to explore private scholarships. These awards are completely separate from everything we’ve discussed so far, so even if you didn’t qualify for the others, don’t give up yet! Private scholarships are offered by a wide variety of organizations (like non-profit foundations, social clubs, for-profit companies, etc.) and so they 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 things like being a first-generation college student or having divorced parents. There are hundreds of different private scholarships in Sarasota County alone, so you will very likely qualify for at least some of them no matter who you are.

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. Needless to say, this is all very time-consuming and discourages many students from applying. But those who are willing to make time to apply for private scholarships are often rewarded: the more applications you submit, the greater your chances of winning. 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!

Students in Sarasota County are particularly lucky, because we have an unusually high number of private scholarships–more than Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties combined! If you had to choose one county to look for these awards, you couldn’t do much better than Sarasota: over $3 MILLION is given to Sarasota County students every year! And that’s an important point, because there are private scholarships offered at the local, state and national level, and figuring out which ones to apply to can be overwhelming. The most 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 a few hundred at most. Those are great odds compared to state and national awards, which can receive thousands or even tens of thousands of applications. Your time is limited, so use it wisely and focus on all the wonderful opportunities right here in Sarasota.

For a comprehensive listing of private scholarships in Sarasota county click here.



Financial Safety Schools

It is highly recommended that all students apply to at least one Financial Safety School (FSS). A Financial Safety School is one that the student would be able to afford with relatively little need for financial aid, one at which the student is almost certain to be accepted, and one that the student is willing to attend. A Florida in-state public four-year college or university is often a good Financial Safety School, since in-state tuition is lower than tuition at a private college, public college or university in another state.

SCF or Florida Community Colleges

Starting at an in-state community college to fulfill general requirements, and transferring to a four-year, in-state public college or university for the final two years (often referred to as a 2+2 program) is a smart option for some students. When applying, make sure that courses meet the degree requirements of a particular four-year institution or major.

AP Credit

It is possible to shorten the length of time as an undergraduate by attending schools that award credit to students who achieve high enough AP scores. This can significantly lessen the cost of college by reducing attendance by up to a full year. Many highly selective colleges grant little or no credit for AP scores. Most colleges list which tests and what scores qualify for credit on their website or refer to AP Credit Policies.

Honors Programs

If attending in-state, consider applying to an Honors Program or Honors College. Honors programs often provide a school within a school and offer smaller, more challenging classes. These programs are something to consider for students who are hoping to control costs but still experience a high-quality, smaller program. Honors programs at public out-of-state schools sometimes offer scholarships to admitted out-of-state students.


The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has created a super tool that allows you to build a realistic picture of what the financial obligations will be to attend various colleges. You input your own estimated amounts along with the colleges' estimated annual cost of attendance, or upload your award letter information from your schools.