This article was contributed by NCSASports.com, a student athlete recruiting network.
Applying for college financial aid is one of the few things in life that may be even more confusing and complicated than taxes. It involves getting together loads of financial information, learning an alphabet soup of acronyms, and understanding how the financial aid system works.
Athletes that are ready to compete at the college level may be too busy with homework, practice, camps, and workouts to sit down for hours and study every last detail of the financial aid process. But to give yourself the best chance of using athletics to pay for your education and get ahead in life, it is crucial that you have at least a basic understanding of how financial aid works.
That’s why we’ve assembled this handy guide of 7 essential things about the financial aid process and how to get the best possible package to help pay for your education.
1. Good Academics Create Financial Aid Opportunities
A tiny, select group of athletes gets a full ride to college through an athletic scholarship alone (more on this later). But don’t count on it – even if you’re great, it’s unlikely. The better your GPA and standardized test scores, the more financial aid opportunities will be available to you in college. Some may be from the university, some may be from the state, your high school, or even nonprofit organizations. But no matter where you’re looking for scholarships, you’ll have the best chance if your academics are solid. Any scholarship you can’t apply for because you’re not academically qualified is money you threw out the window – don’t do it!
2. Know your EFC
EFC is one of those alphabet soup acronyms we were just talking about. It stands for “expected family contribution,” meaning the amount of money the Department of Education expects your family to pay towards your education. It is determined using a complex formula involving your family’s income and many of their tax details. You can read more about it by clicking here. Make sure to identify any tax exemptions and other financial details that your family qualified for, so you can get the most accurate EFC. If your family has an accountant or financial advisor, you may want to discuss this with them.
3. Complete Your FAFSA on Time
The FAFSA is another mess of letters – it stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” Your school will not be able to issue you any financial aid if you do not turn one in. This is another form that you’ll need tax information to fill out – make sure to have your parents’ taxes on hand before you sit down to do your FAFSA. You may also qualify for additional aid based on your FAFSA. Click here to read more about it.
4. Ask the Coaches About Aid in Advance
Once you know that a coach is interested in you, don’t be afraid to ask him or her directly about aid. Financial aid is one of the biggest tools that coaches have to bring student-athletes into their programs, and a coach can be a big help in both navigating the college financial aid jungle and in finding more sources of aid you may not have even known were there. The further in advance you ask, the better – money and scholarships can (and do) run out, so there’s an advantage to thinking ahead.
5. Know Whether Your Sport is Head Count or Equivalency
When it comes to financial aid, there are two types of college sports: “head count” sports, and “equivalency” or “Olympic” sports. Head count sports tend to be the ones that generate revenue and you’re more likely to see on TV: in Division I, the head count sports are basketball and football for men, and basketball, tennis, volleyball and gymnastics for women. All other sports are equivalency in Division I – other divisions may have different rules for what is a head count sport and which is an equivalency sport (click here to read more about the differences).
The big difference for athletes: head count athletes get full scholarships. Athletes in equivalency sports may only get partial scholarships. It’s important to create additional financial aid opportunities for yourself, no matter what sport you play (what counts as a “full” scholarship can vary from school to school) – so you should know what kind of scholarships your sport offers as you go forward in the process. You can also talk to the coach about what options they have when it comes to distributing scholarships, how their scholarships are distributed, how many athletes are graduating, whether they can offer you more aid in the future, and so on.
6. Examine and Appeal Your SAR
Congratulations – you’ve gotten to the last of the big college financial aid acronyms! SAR stands for “student aid report.” It’s the document that your school’s financial aid office will create once they’ve processed your FAFSA and the financial aid you qualify for. It is a summary of all the financial aid the school offers you. Often – especially for athletes – you can find some additional aid if you “appeal” your SAR, especially if your coach is helping you with the process. This can be worth thousands of additional dollars.
7. Athletes aren’t limited to “athletic” scholarships
Finally, even if you are getting an athletic scholarship, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep your eyes open for other kinds! This is especially important if you are only receiving a partial scholarship, or if you are playing at a division level that does not offer formal athletic scholarships. Athletes can receive need-based, merit-based (academic), or third-party scholarships (from veterans’ organizations, community service groups, unions… the list goes on and on). Qualifying for these scholarships is part of why academic success is so important. You can ask your high school counselor’s office, or use a website like fastweb.com to find lots of scholarships you may be eligible for.
Learning these facts and securing your financial aid accordingly can help save you and your family a lot of money. The financial assistance for your education is one of the most important advantages that sports can bring you in college – make the most of it!
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