Every university in the country is required by law to have a Net Price Calculator on its website. The Net Price Calculator will give you an accurate estimate of how much financial aid you will receive at that particular university and ultimately how much it will cost for you to attend.
You can find the Net Price Calculator on each university's website, but links to all these calculators are available through the CFNC College Works page for North Carolina schools.
The Grant Forecaster predicts how much you will receive in federal and state grants. Because community colleges rarely give away additional scholarships or financial aid, the Grant Forecaster is a great tool to use especially if you are thinking about community college.
Financial Aid is money from the state and federal government as well as from universities that helps students go to college. There are several types of financial aid including grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans. Every college and university has a financial aid office which takes information about your family's income and assets, and combines the amount of aid you qualify for from the government with the university's own funds and eligibility criteria. The result is a financial aid package that you will receive from the university after you have been accepted. This package will tell you exactly how much you will be expected to pay if you attend that university.
Thanks to Financial Aid, college is affordable. However, not all colleges will be affordable to every family. There are three steps every family needs to take in order to make a college education affordable.
The FAFSA is the form through which you apply for government financial aid. In other words, the FAFSA will tell universities how much your family should be expected to contribute to paying for college, make you eligible for state and federal government grants (such as the Pell Grant), and put the ball in the college's court in terms of how much "institutional" money the college will put up in order for you to be able to go to school.
You can access the FAFSA at https://fafsa.ed.gov. If you have never filled it out, simply click, "Start a new FAFSA".
If you are planning to begin college in the fall, the FAFSA opens on January 1st. Every college has its own deadline for guaranteed financial aid, but it is a good idea to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible, preferably before the end of January.
If you are graduating early and want to begin college in the spring semester, or if you want to begin taking classes during the summer, you have to look on each university's website for the financial aid deadline (if you can't find the information on the website, then call the financial aid office). For the spring semester, deadlines can be as early as October 1st.
Where can I find more information:
What you will need:
If you are a dependent student, then you will also need most of the above information for your parent(s).
The CSS Profile is similar to the FAFSA and is another way to apply for financial aid at several select colleges and scholarship programs.
A full list of the colleges and scholarships which require the PROFILE can be found here, but in North Carolina the PROFILE is required for students applying to Davidson, Duke, Wake Forest, Elon, and UNC Chapel Hill, along with some scholarships.
For more information see the CSS Profile home page.
There is no easy way to search scholarships. There are lots of resources out there to search for and find scholarships, but there are no shortcuts. You still have to go through the tens and often hundreds of scholarship listings to try to find the couple that you qualify for. Good grades and test scores always help when hoping to win scholarships.
Start early. Figuring out what you want to do, researching colleges, making a college list, and test prep are top priorities for the months of September- December. However, also keep an eye out for potential scholarships: many scholarship deadlines come early. Spend a couple of evenings going through the scholarship lists on the Starmount Guidance webpage and CFNC.org. Mark down any that you may qualify for and note the deadlines.
Start local. School churches, parents place of employment, local businesses and community organizations. There is a limited number of applicants from your community, meaning that you will have a higher chance of winning. After looking through all local resources, work out to search for national scholarships and competitions.
Although the amount of federal and state aid that you receive will be similar no matter what university you attend, each university has their own financial aid department that can provide additional aid on top of the state/federal amount. Some universities are more generous with their aid than others and many give out aid based on academic merit. However, a student who qualifies for merit aid at one school may not at another.
Thus, the very important third step towards an affordable college education is to apply to a wide variety of schools (at least 5) in order to maximize your chances of not only being accepted, but receiving a financial offer that is affordable for the family.