I haven’t yet practiced putting all this information in a user-friendly format, but very important information follows. I want to make sure this is available to folks. Please read!
There are generally two methods for calculating financial aid: Federal Methodology and Institutional Methodology. Most colleges use federal methodology, requiring applicants to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) at fafsa.ed.gov. (Fafsa.com is a for-profit company that charges a fee to file a free form). A large number of schools, mostly private, use institutional methodology to calculate your financial need. These schools require a financial form called the CSS Profile. There is a fee to file the CSS Profile unless your family is classified as low-income. After you complete the Profile, low-income families will have their fee automatically waived. You can begin filling out the Profile October 1 of your senior year. Starting in 2016 (for the class of 2017), the FAFSA should be completed after October 1 of your senior year. I strongly recommend both forms be completed by October 30. Attend Financial Aid Night at your school to ask questions. (The FAFSA, prior to 2016, was available in January. This new deadline will be helpful in that you can use your 2015 taxes and most people should be able to link directly to the IRS. Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool on the FAFSA validates the numbers on the FAFSA so you will be asked fewer times to send more information. While this should be enough data for the colleges, some require a third form (mostly repeat information). You will not receive all the financial aid for which you are eligible, if you do not complete each college's requirements.
Another important recommendation: Use the EFC (Estimated Family Contribution) calculator to get a very good estimate of what colleges believe you can contribute to your child’s education. Ask it to calculate using both institutional and federal methodology. (You can do this anonymously; you never have to enter any personal information, even if they encourage it). This is important information, as it helps you determine what type of school may come closest to meeting your need. Most schools cannot meet your full financial need. Just a note: many colleges believe that the federal method over-assesses income and under-assesses assets. The institutional method looks deeply at all your assets and considers home equity (especially for any property other than your primary residence) as cash you can use to pay for college.
Each college is required to have a net price calculator on their site. (If you can't find it quickly, put 'net price calculator' in their search box). This offers more specific results for each school, but it is still not completely accurate. It cannot calculate talent or leadership skills. You may enter a GPA of 3.8, but the college may recalculate your GPA after removing classes like PE, Teacher Assistant, etc. Each college does it differently. You can also use this calculator completely anonymously.
Be sure to check for scholarship application deadlines! A number of schools have scholarship deadlines that require that you submit your application much earlier than the regular application deadline. You will not receive any scholarships unless you meet the deadline.
I recommend that almost all my students apply for financial aid. Some schools will not award merit aid unless you go through the financial aid protocol. Check with each school for their process.
Need-based aid: This is aid awarded to families who would have trouble paying for college. If you are eligible for free or reduced lunch, you will certainly be eligible for need-based financial aid. Some colleges even award money to families who earn up to $150,000. Again, every college is different. Be sure to attend Financial Aid Night at your school to get your questions answered. Typically, these information nights are scheduled for November through January. Applying for financial aid can be a confusing process.
Some schools say that they will meet 100% of your demonstrated need. Most of these schools are highly selective schools with huge endowments. (If you come from a low-income family and have the qualifications to be admitted to these most competitive schools, you may get all your expenses covered if you are admitted. Some schools even meet your need with all grant money, and no loans). All schools calculate your need differently, which explains why you will get many different financial aid offers. Most colleges will not be able to meet your full need, which is why you will also be interested in merit-based aid.
Merit-based aid: Most of the scholarships and tuitions discounts that students receive come from the colleges to which they are applying. Most schools, especially private schools, do offer merit aid. Merit Aid is awarded for many reasons: high grades, good test scores, community service, leadership skills and activities, athletic skills etc. Some schools, mostly the most highly selective colleges mentioned above, do not offer any merit aid. You will get the most merit aid, in general, from schools where your grades, test scores, and activities put you in at least the top 25% of that schools application pool. In other words, if your grades and scores are better than most of the students applying to a particular school, you will be offered their best scholarships.
Most schools offer a combination of need and merit aid. It is very hard to predict financial aid awards. They change from year to year.
Talent scholarships: If you have very strong talent in art, music, or theater, you may be offered scholarships based on your talent. Many times, a school will accept and give more aid to a student with strong talent even as they reject another student with higher grades. It’s hard to know what each school is looking for each year. If they need a strong bassoonist, painter or method actor, the student with the particular talent they need that year, will get the money. The school may be looking for completely different talent the next year. (Make sure you meet, or at least talk to, the main professor(s) with whom you will work. You will be with this person much of the time, for four years. You want to have someone with whom you can work well and who shares your artistic philosophy)!
Be sure to make a calendar of audition schedules and requirements. This is a huge part of the admission process for performing artists. For theatre, check out Unified auditions, where you can audition for several schools at once. If you can't afford to travel, please make that clear to the college. If they can't accommodate you, it may not be the right school for you. If you can visit the National Visual and Performing Arts Fair and National Portfolio Day in the years prior to your senior year, you will have a much better sense of expectations.
Athletic Scholarships: While NCAA Division I, II, and NAIA schools all directly offer athletic scholarships, you need to get their attention. Make a short video with highlights. You might also consider including positive recovery from a mistake or disappointment. Contact coaches and send them your video and athletic resume. Get advice form your coaches. While NCAA Division III cannot legally offer athletic scholarships, they do offer non-athletic scholarships to athletes whom they want on their team. They can offer academic, leadership, and community service scholarships. Legally, the activities for which they offer scholarships can’t be connected with your role on the team. For example, you can’t get a leadership scholarship if your only leadership activity is captaining your team. Many D3 schools ask that you list every activity you’ve ever participated in, so they have more opportunity to award you money. This can be delineated on a well-organized resume.
WUE: The Western Undergraduate Exchange is a coalition of public universities and colleges from fifteen western states (I love this map of the states on the Northern Arizona University site) who agree to let students from neighboring states pay 150% of in-state tuition instead of paying full out-of-state tuition. For some states, this is a great deal because their in-state tuition is very inexpensive, due to good state support for education. Not all schools in these states participate in the program and most have requirements that students must meet to be eligible. A few schools offer WUE to any eligible student who is admitted. Some schools restrict the majors eligible for participation, others offer a limited number of WUE placements (apply early), and certain schools have designated test scores and GPAs that must be met. The fastest and most accurate way to find out of a school has WUE is to put 'WUE' in the search box on the individual college website. The second most effective is to call and ask them. I have found that the information on the WUE/WICHE site is often out-dated. Another note: many out-of-state public universities have specific scholarships (beyond WUE) for out-of-state students. This is true even of WUE schools. Always check to see if you qualify.