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Help to pay your way

A quick guide to financial aid options

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Finding the money to pay for college can be tough. For returning students, make that extra tough. Financial commitments, not to mention time constraints like work and family, make returning to school seem like a distant echo of a good idea. Luckily, depending on your situation, a variety of financial aid options are available and waiting.

The first step is to determine the deadlines for all financial aid and admissions applications. These are important. The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, should be submitted as soon after January 1 as possible. The FAFSA compiles the income, expenses and taxes of you and your dependent family to determine your Expected Family Contributions (EFC), a number which represents how much of your income can be used toward your own schooling. Most federal, state, and school financial aid programs rely on this number to determine the amount of need-based aid one receives.

You'll need both federal and state income tax returns to complete a FAFSA; however, if you haven't gotten around to filing this year's taxes you can use tax figures from the previous year to process the application. This allows the FAFSA to be completed without rushing to file a new tax return, a convenience, but not always a beneficial one. "For individuals who've been laid off or in cases of a dramatic [income] shift," Jerome St. Croix, director of financial aid at MonroeCommunity College, recommends "meeting with a financial aid advisor to officially amend your FAFSA using your most recent income."

FAFSA applications can be filed by mail or online; choosing the latter option can speed your application time by up to two weeks (visit www.fafsa.ed.gov). Depending on the results of your FAFSA application, the federal government can award a Pell Grant, a credit of up to $4,000, toward your tuition. In the cases of highest need, a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) may be added to the Pell Grant. Unfortunately, both of these grants are unavailable to students already holding a bachelor's or professional degree.

Alternately, New YorkState financial aid doesn't exclude those who already have a degree. However, there are a limited number of payments available to each student --- an individual can only receive state financial aid for a certain number of semesters. This means that if you got your degree out of state or didn't use your NYS aid before, you're still eligible.

To apply for state aid, full-time students will need to complete an application for the NYS Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). Electronic FAFSA filers will receive a link to the Express TAP Application, while paper FAFSA filers will receive their form in the mail. The New York State Higher Education Services Corporation (NYSHESC) manages the aid and will notify you of your eligibility, though your school must verify your enrollment and certify the award.

Part-time students apply for New York state money through the Aid for Part-time Study Program (APTS), which can provide up to $500 a year. This application must be submitted, with a NYS tax return, to your college's financial aid office. While the FAFSA applications become available on January 1, and should be completed as soon as possible, the APTS applications generally become available later in the year. Unlike the TAP application, the APTS form goes directly through your school.

The FAFSA form also includes an option to apply for the Federal Direct Stafford Loan, a student loan that can be subsidized or unsubsidized depending on need. The federal government pays the interest on subsidized loans while the student is still enrolled and the loan is deferred, while unsubsidized loans accrue interest until they are paid in full. These loans can be used for room and board, books and other expenses after paying tuition. The Stafford Loan isn't the only student loan program. Other options to look into include Perkins loans, which go through participating schools, as well as alternative student loans from private banks and institutions.

Once the FAFSA is processed you will receive a Student Assistance Report (SAR). Check the SAR carefully for any errors and to retain it for your records. If your application is randomly selected for review you will be required you to provide a copy of tax return documents for verification before aid can be disbursed.

Some private universities may also require that students fill out a CSS PROFILE form, a financial aid application run by the College Board, to determine private aid. Area schools that require this are the University of Rochester and Nazareth for early decision (profileonline.collegeboard.com). Other schools, like RIT, require a specific form administered by their own financial aid department.

Parallel to this process, students should also be searching for private, institutional, and governmental scholarships. Some schools offer scholarships specifically geared toward returning adult students; MCC's Betty Smith Returning Adult Student Scholarship is one such award. Scholarship information is accessible online through government and private search portals, but be wary of fraudulent scholarship opportunities. Following links through college financial aid websites is a good technique for finding reputable scholarships.

The experts, the best sources for financial aid information, are at your college or prospective college's financial aid office. MCC has a phenomenal financial aid website, with a seven-step financial aid application guide for both part-time and full-time students, and RIT regularly hosts free informational seminars specifically directed at continuing education students. Other area colleges are equally welcoming to questions and queries regarding financial aid packages. Make contact soon, before opportunities and deadlines slip into the ether.

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