Paying for college: Where to get aid

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For most students, finding a way to pay for college is a major challenge. Tuition to some private institutions like Ivy League colleges can now reach nearly $200,000 for four years – and that doesn’t include travel to and from college, room and board, computers, books supplies, and other personal expenses.

However, financial aid and scholarships are available to assist students with their postsecondary plans. More than $150 billion in federal aid alone is available for students who qualify. There are three main categories of federal student aid: loans, grants, and work-study. Check with your school of interest to identify which programs the school participates in.

The first step to getting financial aid is completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA form. This is the form that students must submit to the U.S. Department of Education to be eligible for all financial aid from the federal government, the state of Pennsylvania, and the college they want to attend. You can file online at If you want to complete a paper form, request one from your school counselor or call the U.S. Department of Education at 1-800-4FED-AID for a copy.

The FAFSA must be filed as soon as possible after January 1 of the year you plan to start college. Completing this form requires parents to disclose financial information from their income tax returns, so start early to ensure time to meet the deadline.

Schools and states set financial aid deadlines that are typically early in the year. Check with the schools you’re interested in attending for their deadlines.

When you submit your FAFSA form, your information will also be sent to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), which automatically makes you eligible to receive financial assistance from the state.

For more information about aid programs, visit the following websites:

More scholarship information can be found at:

More financial aid tips:

  • You should never have to pay for FAFSA. If a website charges a fee for these forms, beware. This is a scam.
  • Some schools require that you submit a CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE in addition to the FAFSA. More than 600 colleges, universities, and scholarship programs require this form, which is used in awarding nonfederal aid funds. A fee is required.
  • Apply for every scholarship for which you meet the criteria. Check out your parents’ employment affiliations or religious groups. Last-dollar scholarships offered through the Philadelphia Education Fund College Access Program are ones that you can apply for your junior year in high school, and are applicable to any accredited university; students at more than 20 District schools are eligible.
  • Become informed about loans and grants. Private loans are costly. Make sure you know what you’re signing before you sign.

Source: Marsha Perry, assistant directory, Penn State Philadelphia Community Recruitment Center