As Virginia aspires to become the best-educated state by 2030, wise practices in paying for higher education continue to be of paramount importance.

To connect the goal of a postsecondary degree or credential with the challenge of a tuition bill, getting ahead in the financial aid process helps. We join the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) in raising awareness in February of how to manage college costs. “When students know how to obtain financial aid, it can change the trajectory of their lives and careers,” Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said in a Feb. 3 statement announcing Financial Aid Awareness Month.

In 2018-19, Virginia provided more than $279 million toward undergraduate student aid packages. There are grants, scholarships, loans, work-study jobs, and tuition waiver and savings programs. Finding the right resources and meeting key deadlines is the challenge. Gathering information for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) requires advance planning. Families need an FSA ID (obtained online), a Social Security number, tax records from two years before (2018 for the 2020-21 form), bank statements and records for untaxed income and for non-U.S. citizens, a green card.

The calendar matters too, as FAFSA deadlines vary by institution. SCHEV’s website breaks down dates for all types of schools, which are separate from admissions deadlines. March 1 is the most common priority FAFSA date. But schools like University of Virginia’s College at Wise (Feb. 15) have earlier deadlines, while Virginia State University (March 31) has a later cutoff point.

After meeting the FAFSA deadline, students are encouraged to apply for scholarships. SCHEV lists dozens of state programs and contacts to receive more information. One opportunity offers tuition and fees for aspiring shipyard workers at Tidewater Community College. Another gives $7,000 and a paid summer internship to aspiring civil engineers through the Virginia Department of Transportation. Fastweb.com is listed as a trusted resource, and separate opportunities might exist at local employers, banks, nonprofits and faith-based groups.

After the FAFSA is processed, students will receive a student aid report (SAR) from the U.S. Department of Education. Families review the SAR to confirm their FAFSA information, which includes an expected family contribution. That value helps colleges determine financial aid packages. Equipping families with all of this financial aid information is a critical step to keep kids on a strong career track, without the burden of debt.

Richmond Times-Dispatch

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