Q. What is the first step in getting money from a college?
A. Get to know the universe. Some colleges offer only need-based aid; others also give money based on merit. Since colleges use financial aid as a recruitment tool, they'll be happy to share information on their programs. Don't worry about the Federal programs. No matter where you attend, your financial aid officer will gather all the money for which you qualify.
Q. What forms must I fill out?
A. An application to the college is usually all that is needed to put you in the running for its merit scholarships, though since additional paper work is occasionally necessary, it is best to check with each college. For need-based aid, most families must complete only the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Its formula uses your income and assets to determine how much the family is expected to pay for college. If the annual costs of attendance are greater, you qualify for aid. The FAFSA formula is the law for federal monies, but some elite private colleges ask for more information about assets before distributing money of their own. If so, they'll require you to fill out the College Board Financial Aid Profile form and/or an application of their own.
Q. What if I am divorced?
A. The Federal formula considers only the custodial parent's ability to pay in awarding aid. However, if the custodial parent has remarried, the new spouse's income and assets are included in the calculation. Some private colleges, in awarding their own funds, do add in the noncustodial parent's assets and income.