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How does the financial aid process work?

Most students receive some type of financial aid—money you receive from the federal government, the state or your college. Missing a step in the process can jeopardize your chance of receiving aid, so it pays to understand the process and to make sure you are on track.

Read about maximizing your financial aid

Learn More Indiana provides information on maximizing your financial aid at any age.

Apply to colleges

The first step is to apply to colleges, usually beginning in the fall of your senior year of high school. Learn More Indiana’s annual College GO! Week campaign can help you find an Indiana college that’s right for you, or you can use the College Navigator to explore colleges in other states.

You can estimate the amount of financial aid you will receive at any Indiana college by using the Indiana College Costs Estimator. This tool assumes that you will file the FAFSA (see below), so don't forget that important step in securing financial aid!

Apply for scholarships

Start applying for scholarships early. Some may have deadlines as early as December of your senior year. If you are already in college, there are still many scholarships for you. Read about your scholarship opportunities.

File your FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA) is your ticket to federal, state and institutional (from your college) aid. Anyone who will be in college in the fall, including high school seniors, should file a FAFSA between January 1 and March 10. Read more about filing the FAFSA to make sure you have all the necessary tax forms and paperwork, and find additional financial aid resources, on our Cash for College site. Any corrections to your FAFSA must be submitted by May 15. For example, if your family hasn't filed their taxes by March 10, you may submit the FAFSA with estimated tax information. After your family has filed, you can then correct the information online at FAFSA.gov.

Some colleges may have deadlines earlier than March 10, so be sure to read all the financial aid information carefully. It’s important to know which colleges you might attend, because you will have to list them on the FAFSA (although you are able to update your list after you originally submit the FAFSA).

The Student Aid Report

After March 10, the U.S. Department of Education will send your Student Aid Report to each of the colleges you listed on the FAFSA. This report summarizes the information on your FAFSA and gives the amount the government believes your family can contribute to your college education. If you are 23 or older, it will state how much you can contribute yourself.

The financial aid award letter

After reviewing your Student Aid Report, college financial aid offices will determine your eligibility for the different types of aid. Your letter will list all the types and the amounts.

The letter will also list federal loans that you or your parents can accept for your college education. Remember that loans will have to be paid back, unlike grants and other financial aid in the letter. Read more about reducing your college debt.

Accept or reject financial aid

The financial aid award letter will give you instructions for accepting or rejecting the aid offered. You will also have to decide which college you are attending. Usually you must mail the college a formal acceptance. You may choose to accept some aid (such as a state grant for $1,000) but reject other aid (such as a Parent PLUS federal loan). Be sure to follow instructions on rejecting aid, and pay close attention to the difference between grants, scholarships and loans.

Finish faster

Even if you receive a lot of financial aid, attending college can still be a financial burden on you or your family. You can follow Learn More Indiana’s advice on finishing faster to save money on school.

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