According to an October 2009 article by the Washington Post, the average annual tuition rate is $26,273 at private colleges and $7,020 at public schools. These staggering figures can leave students wondering how they're going to pay for an education, and they may leave others feeling shut out from higher education altogether.
Even more alarming is the rate at which college costs are increasing. From 2008 to 2009, costs increased 6.5 percent at public colleges and 4.4 percent at private institutions. In the previous decade, from 1998 to 2008, annual costs only increased an average of 4.9 percent and 2.6 percent at public and private colleges, respectively [source: Anderson and de Vise].
Fortunately, as college costs have risen, so has the availability of financial aid. With billions of dollars up for grabs, students have more opportunities than ever to keep up with the rising cost of college tuition. "Free money" is available in the form of scholarships, grants and fellowships, which students don't have to pay back. For even more assistance, students can turn to low-interest loans, which are often funded by the state or federal government to make higher education more accessible.
Of course, before you can receive any kind of financial aid, you have to apply for it. For most students, this process begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA. This form is a one-stop-shop type of application and enables students to apply for a wide variety of aid all at once.
One of the most important parts of the financial aid process is understanding application deadlines for the FAFSA and other forms. Even the student with the greatest need should expect to receive little or no financial assistance if the FAFSA is submitted past the deadline. Because these deadlines can vary by state, it's critical to stay on top of your financial aid applications to maximize your chances for receiving the best financial aid package possible.
To learn more about completing the FAFSA and meeting financial aid application deadlines, read on to the next section.