Paying for College
If you’re a student of any age or a parent overwhelmed by the costs of college or confused by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), we can help. Our trained staff members and volunteers will help you complete and submit the application to secure all of the financial aid for which you are eligible.
What is Financial Aid?
Financial aid is any funding that an individual student receives in order to pay for college-related expenses. The U.S. government, state governments, colleges and universities, and private organizations all award financial aid, and they can make those awards on the basis of financial need or student merit. State and federal government aid programs, along with postsecondary institutions, use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine a student’s financial need.
Administered by the U.S. Department of Education, the FAFSA gives students with financial need access to the nine federal financial aid programs, 605 state aid programs, and virtually every postsecondary institution’s aid program. The FAFSA uses a number of factors—household income, family size, number of children in college, for instance—to determine aid eligibility and awards.
Each year, about two-thirds of all undergraduates receive some form of financial aid through the FAFSA; more than 75% of that group receives some form of gift aid, which is aid that does not need to be paid back. But these percentages could be even larger: a significant number of the 35% of undergraduates who do not receive aid each year are actually eligible for financial aid—many just don’t complete the FAFSA.
The hardest part of college shouldn’t be paying for it. If you are thinking about continuing your education at a community college, vocational school, or four-year university, you could be eligible for thousands of dollars in financial aid to help pay for it. Ladder Up provides free assistance to individuals completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a critical application produced by the U.S. Department of Education. Every student planning to attend college must complete the FAFSA in order to qualify for grants, loans, work-study programs, and, in many cases, private scholarships. Ladder Up helps students and their families submit the FAFSA on time and accurately.
Our FAFSA Ready Worksheet (PDF, 143kb) will prepare you to fill out the FAFSA. Fill out the worksheet today so you can be ready to complete your FAFSA in October!
Watch a video about financial aid and the application process.
- Social Security numbers for the parents and student (students with SSNs whose parents are non-citizens can still apply)
- Student’s alien registration/permanent resident card number (if the student is not a U.S. citizen)
- Birthdates for the parents and student
- Income statements (W-2s, 1099s, etc.) or information to help estimate earnings
- Federal income tax return (IRS Form 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ) for the parents and student (if the parents and/or student are tax filers)
- If your income changed significantly this year, contact the colleges your student was accepted to and ask the financial aid department for a “professional judgment.” They will ask to review your current tax information to determine if you are eligible for an adjustment.
- Information on any untaxed income (i.e. child support, payments to tax-deferred plans, workers’ compensation, disability, etc.)
- Checking and savings account balances for the parents and student
- Other asset information including net worth of stocks, bonds, CDs, secondary homes or rental/investment properties, and other investments
- Other investments include: trust funds, UGMA and UTMA accounts, money market funds, mutual funds, stock options, other securities, commodities, 529 college savings plans, the refund value of 529 prepaid tuition plans, Cordell savings accounts, etc.
- A list of colleges the student is applying to – up to 10 can be listed on the FAFSA at one time (more can be added after the initial application is processed)
Federal Loan Programs
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*Federal loan rates change periodically, but the interest rate on the day the loan is disbursed is fixed over the life of the loan.
** Annual borrowing limits ] change periodically and are determined by factors including a student’s year in school. Lifetime limits also apply, based on how much postsecondary schooling a student pursues.
† Direct loans are eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Individual states may also offer loan forgiveness program.
†† A loan servicer is the company or organization that handles billing and payment. The U.S. Department of Education assigns Stafford and PLUS loans to various approved servicers.
Process Overview – Securing Federal Student Loans
- The student fills out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) at fafsa.ed.gov.
- The U.S. Department of Education sends a Student Aid Report (SAR) to the student and student’s selected colleges. The SAR includes your FAFSA responses and basic eligibility information.
- Once the student is admitted to the college, the college reviews the SAR to determine the student’s eligibility for financial aid and sends the student an aid offer.
- The student chooses a college and decides which financial aid to accept.
- If the student accepts a Direct Subsidized Loan, a Direct Unsubsidized Loan, or a Direct PLUS Loan, the college notifies the U.S. Department of Education and requires first-time borrowers to sign a promissory note and complete loan entrance counseling. Loan entrance counseling helps you understand your obligation to repay your loan.
- The student must sign the promissory note and complete loan entrance counseling. A promissory note is a legal document in which you promise to repay your loan. It also explains the terms and conditions of your loan.
- The U.S. Department of Education provides loan funds to the college.
- The college applies loan funds to the student’s account and provides any remaining balance to the student.
- The U.S. Department of Education assigns the student’s loan to a loan servicer. A loan servicer is a company that collects payments on the loan, answers questions, and performs other administrative tasks associated with the loan.
- When the student graduates, leaves school, or drops below half-time enrollment, he/she must complete loan exit counseling. Loan exit counseling explains your loan repayment responsibilities and when repayment begins.
- After a grace or deferment period, the student begins repaying the loan. If the student has any questions or needs help with loan repayment, the student contacts the loan servicer. The process for receiving some federal student loans, including Federal Perkins Loans and Direct PLUS Loans for parents, is different. To learn more about these and other federal student loans, visit StudentAid.gov/loans. To get information on loan repayment, visit studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans.
Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans
It is important to know the differences between these federal student loan programs. Federal loans can be subsidized or unsubsidized. Subsidized loans do not accrue interest until the student graduates, while unsubsidized loans begin accruing interest as soon as the loan is disbursed. This difference means that if you accept an unsubsidized loan freshman year, the loan will begin accumulating interest immediately.
Loan Limits and Eligibility
If a student qualifies for Stafford loans, the dollar figure will be the same regardless of where a student chooses to enroll. That is, if you’re eligible for a $3,500 Stafford loan, you can use that $3,500 loan at Northwestern University or at the University of Chicago. Perkins loans are reserved for students with exceptional financial need. They are not, however, offered at every school, and they are not offered to every student who is eligible. Individual schools have discretion over whether they offer the Perkins loan and in what amount. So Northwestern may offer you a $2,000 Perkins loan, while the University of Chicago may not offer you one at all. Perkins and Stafford loans have annual borrowing limits that vary depending on what year you are in school. PLUS loans also have varying borrowing limits; a parent may borrow an amount equal to the gap between a school’s cost of attendance and the student’s financial aid award.
Stafford and Perkins loans are both disbursed to the student and they do not require a credit check or co-signer. The student is legally responsible for repaying the debt. PLUS loans are available to parents of undergraduates, and they require a credit check; parents are legally responsible for repaying the debt.
Additional Loan Resources:
Workshops for Partners
Financial Aid Workshops
If you are interested in scheduling workshops for your school or organization, please complete our online request form.
Financial aid services are delivered in 3 parts:
FAFSA 101 Workshops
An overview of the financial aid application process and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that can be tailored to different audiences. AV setup for PowerPoint is preferred. Student and/or parents will learn basic information about:
- Federal aid programs & eligibility
- When and how to complete the FAFSA
- Determining FAFSA dependency status
FAFSA Completion & Corrections Workshops
Ladder Up staff members help students and parents complete the FAFSA online. Smaller groups receive one-on-one assistance; larger groups are guided through the application step-by-step with time for individual questions. Staff members review each application before submission. Prior to the workshop, Ladder Up can provide partners with the FAFSA Ready Worksheet (PDF, 143kb) to share with students. Internet-enabled computers are required. Priority is given to students who have not yet completed the FAFSA, but staff members can accommodate students in all stages of the application process. Day, evening, and weekend sessions are available.
College Knowledge Workshops
Ladder Up staff members help students navigate the remaining steps of the financial aid process after completing the FAFSA. These College Knowledge workshops cover topics such as:
- Understanding Award Letters: Financial aid award letters from colleges are not standardized so Ladder Up provides assistance in interpreting and understanding award letters so that students and families are able to make an informed decision about college selection.
- Student Loans: Taking on student debt has become a reality for almost everyone pursing postsecondary education. Ladder Up provides an overview of the types of loans that are available and key differences among them as well as how a loan works with emphasis on the repayment process.
- College Finances: Living independently in college will present very significant financial changes and potential challenges for students. Students must learn how to maintain their financial aid throughout the year and the importance of saving and working within a tight budget.
- Personal Statements: Ladder Up helps high school juniors and seniors write creative, concise, and dynamic essays that will stand out during the college admissions process. A great workshop for juniors and seniors writing essays required for scholarship applications.
One-on-one coaching is available for all students on the following topics: FAFSA 101, FAFSA completion/correction, understanding award letters, student loan basics, college finances, and writing personal statements. Coaching can be provided via phone, e-mail, or in person. For additional information or to sign up, please scroll down to the Contact Us section at the bottom of the page and select “Student Coaching” from the Topic dropdown menu.
College Greenlight, CollegeGreenLight.com
Chicago Public School Scholarships, https://cps.academicworks.com/
Undocumented Students (.xlsx download)
Free online tool for college selection, student loan management, and financial literacy Create an account at https://iontuition.com/Registration?from=iontuition and include referral code ladderup10
Affordable Colleges Online
Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC)
Detailed information about financial aid including EFC calculators, financial aid program overviews, and much more: isac.org
U.S. Department of Education
The Department of Education has many primary resources on everything related to higher education: ed.gov
Chicago Public Schools Department of Postsecondary Education
You Can Go
Helps you stay on track in your college readiness, make a pledge to go to college and tell others all about: ycg.org
Programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education to help low-income, disabled or first-generation college students achieve a college education: www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/trio/index.html
They say money talks and we couldn’t agree more…
“Marwen has partnered with Ladder Up for numerous years to support Marwen students and families with financial literacy and applying for financial aid. Ladder Up’s programs are comprehensive and accessible and their staff is great — each workshop and staff member meets students where they’re at and makes financial topics engaging and fun! They’ve been a great resource for Marwen and have helped us support so many families and students over the years. We look forward to continuing this great partnership.”
“Ladder Up was such a tremendous help in showing our alumni how to successfully compare sample award letters, that the next day during a college visit, our students taught their financial aid representative a thing or two!”
“Ladder Up covered pre & post-graduation information that I could not have covered (thoroughly) during the school year. I always give my students my best and bring them the best! Ladder Up is the best…Ladder Up Rocks!!!”