Now that you’ve completed Step 1, it’s time for Step 2 in finding scholarships. Step 2 is using colleges’ financial aid and scholarship tools to determine what scholarships you’re eligible for at which colleges.

Colleges themselves are the best source of scholarships, since scholarships and other forms of tuition discounting are one of the primary vehicles colleges use to attract and enroll students. Unfortunately, finding out what scholarships you’re eligible for where is largely a manual process.

Your first step with each college your student is interested in is to complete its net price calculator. Net price calculators show you what students like you received in financial aid the previous school year. They’re not definitive or binding on the college, but they do provide great visibility to how colleges package aid. When my daughter was applying to colleges, we did net price calculators for every school and every offer she got was within $2,000 of what the net price calculator projected for her.

Net price calculators have varying levels of detail, with some asking only financial questions and others asking for academic information too. They do have some specific requirements, though:

  • They can only show gift aid– scholarships and grants– not loans or work-study.
  • They have to show total cost of attendance, separating estimated tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies and other expenses, and the student’s estimated net price.
  • They have to show what percent of the cohort on which the estimate is based received grant aid.

Many colleges have additional scholarships available beyond what’s shown in the net price calculator, so it’s helpful to review available scholarships and eligibility and application requirements, especially if the net price calculator only asks for financial data. You can google “[college name] incoming freshman scholarships” if you can’t find their scholarship information page.

Doing net price calculators is a great exercise to see the range of prices you’ll be expected to pay, and how colleges package financial aid. For example, many colleges include direct student loans and work study in their aid packages; such a college will probably return a higher net price in their net price calculator than one that meets all need with grants and scholarships. Likewise, colleges that use the FAFSA rather than the CSS Profile will generally have lower net prices for aid-eligible students due to differences in the two forms’ methodologies.

An important consideration with net price calculators is how consistent your family’s income is from year to year. If your income varies a lot– say, you earn commissions or are self-employed– you’ll want to try the net price calculator at different income levels. This will help to avoid unhappy surprises in later college years if your income goes up. If the numbers vary widely– outside the range of what you’re able to pay– it’s probably worth a conversation with the financial aid office at the college to see what parameters they put on a student’s net price over four years.

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