Paying for College

Financial Aid for Son of Single Mom without Savings

Question: I am a single female parent with no savings to help my son go to

college. He has been accepted to a few of them. Where can I get help?


The financial aid offices at the colleges where your son has applied will be the best places to get the assistance you need. Presumably, you have completed all the required financial aid forms--or are in the process of doing so--which will include the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) for sure, and possibly the CSS PROFILE (many colleges don't require this one, and it's not free) and any other forms specific to the particular institutions where your son has applied (some have their own; others don't; you need to ask each college, if it's not clear from the application or the Web site).

If you don't know what we're talking about, speak immediately with your son's high school guidance counselor. If that doesn't help, write back.

Many Federal grants and loans are available to help every U.S. student attend college. (We're assuming that your son is an American citizen or permanent resident, right?). Depending on how needy you are, you may be eligible for a Federal Pell Grant or a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), both of which do not have to be repaid (that's the difference between "grants" and "loans") but which only go to applicants with the greatest need. Otherwise, there will be a variety of loans and grants for which you should qualify.

Once you've filled out the required forms (a big pain, but an unavoidable one), the colleges that accept your son will let you know what his aid "package" will be. A package is typically a combination of grant, loan, and work-study (a campus job that can cover books or pizza--probably not enough for both).

While it may sound counterintuitive, the most expensive colleges often end up being the cheapest ones because they have the most money to give away and are more likely to award grant money rather than to saddle students with large loans. They are also more likely to provide aid "to the full extent of your need" rather than to practice what is called "need gapping" (i.e., giving you less money than you qualify to receive). Thus, if your son is a strong student but has avoided applying to well-regarded private colleges (especially those with national, rather than just regional reputations), then he might want to investigate those whose deadlines have not passed, because the aid may turn out to be better than at public colleges or less prestigious ones.

Another place to look is at http://www.fastweb.com It's free to complete the online questionnaire to gain access to information about scholarships that might be appropriate for your son. However, many of the dollar amounts aren't significant, and those that are tend to be highly competitive. Working through college and university financial aid offices is usually your best bet. Don't hesitate to visit, if the colleges concerned are nearby, or to set up a telephone appointment, if they're not.

Two tips before you do:

1. Financial aid officers can be quick to slip into finaid jargon. As soon as you lose track of what's being said, speak up and ask for an explanation in layman's terms.

2. When dealing with finaid folks, always act appreciative, never entitled. This can go a long way to helping you get the dough you need.

Good luck to you. Write again if you're confused about where to find the FAFSA, etc.

Best wishes to you and your son,