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Guide to Finding Financial Aid for Colleges & Universities

Use this guide as a starting point to research financial aid for colleges and universities. If you have questions after consulting these resources, use the Ask a Librarian section.

This guide answers the following questions:

What Is Financial Aid?  

Financial aid is an umbrella term given to all kinds of monetary assistance to help students pay for college tuition and expenses. Need-based aid in the form of grants or loans is distributed according to a family’s ability to pay. Merit-based aid in the form of scholarships may be awarded to students who have demonstrated proficiency in academics, extra-curricular activities, or athletics.

In general, loans need to be repaid, scholarships and grants do not. But sometimes federal loans are forgiven through programs that require a service commitment such as joining the military or teaching in an inner-city school. And even scholarships can have strings attached such as maintaining a minimum grade point average, performing in a college band, or playing on a sports team. It is important to become well informed about all aspects of financial aid since little details like these can have a big impact on what you pay for college.

The Federal Work-Study Program, which subsidizes jobs for college students, is also considered a component of financial aid and is administered through college financial aid offices.


How Can I Learn More About Financial Aid?


Your most valuable resource is the financial aid officer at each school you are applying to. He or she will be the expert on how financial aid is awarded at that college.

In addition, there are many sources of information, both in the library and on the Internet, available to educate prospective students and their families about the financial aid process. Keep in mind that it is important to check the date of financial aid information because laws and procedures change over time.

The ABCs of Financial Aid is a good, short article to help you find answers to commonly asked questions about financial aid. Also read Financial Aid Myths for more helpful information.



How Do I Apply for Financial Aid?  

Step 1: Complete the FAFSA Form

Every college will require you to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form if you are applying for financial aid. This form is used to determine your family’s ability to pay for college. The financial information you provide on the FAFSA form is forwarded to each school you list on the form. Most financial aid, no matter what the source, is distributed through the college financial aid offices. Each year, the form should be completed as soon after January 1st as possible for the next academic year.

As you can tell from the title, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form is used to apply for financial aid distributed by the federal government – both loans and grants. Filling out the FAFSA form is also the first step for accessing aid given by the state governments and the colleges themselves. Since nearly 80% of all financial aid comes from these three sources (the federal government, state governments, and colleges) completing the FAFSA form is the single most important step you must take if you need money for college.

Free FAFSA forms are available in the Social Sciences Division of the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County. You can also obtain copies of the FAFSA form from other MCLS libraries, your high school guidance office, or by calling the Federal Student Aid Information Center, 800-433-3243 or TTY 800-730-8913.

Helpful FAFSA Websites:

FAFSA on the Web has detailed information about the form and an online form you can complete. The Department of Education website also includes information on completing the FAFSA form. Use this web page to look up each college’s Federal School Code, which you will need for each college you are applying to.

Step 2: Check with colleges for additional financial aid forms

In addition to the FAFSA form, many colleges have other financial aid forms for you to complete. Contact the Financial Aid Office at individual colleges for their requirements. (See How can I find financial aid information for a specific college or university?)

Step 3: Review the Student Aid Report (SAR)

Approximately four to six weeks after you have submitted a FAFSA form, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). The report will summarize the information you entered on the FAFSA form. Be sure that all information is correct. In addition, the report will list your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your financial need for each college can be determined by subtracting the Expected Family Contribution from the college cost. The report does not state you will receive this aid.

Step 4: Review the financial aid packages

Each college where you are accepted will put together a financial aid package for you for the upcoming school year. This package of monetary assistance may bundle loans or grants from the federal government, the state, and from the college’s own resources. The financial aid packages will vary from college to college, and there is no guarantee that your financial need (college cost minus expected family contribution) will be met.

Step 5: Investigate additional options

If you have financial need that is unmet through your college’s offer of financial aid or if you don’t qualify for need-based financial aid, you may want to investigate other options for paying for college, such as loans and scholarships.


Loans can be subsidized or unsubsidized; they can come from government, colleges, banks, organizations, and companies. Some are extended to students and some to parents. Some loans are available only to students who have demonstrated financial need; some are available to any student. The only thing that all loans have in common is that they have to be repaid, except under certain federal loan forgiveness programs.


Scholarships are gifts of money for college costs. Unlike loans they do not have to be repaid. However, there may be requirements for use imposed by the granting organization.

If you scored high on the National Merit Qualifying Exam or you have a stellar high school record and high SAT scores, colleges may be contacting you with offers of merit-based scholarships. You may also receive offers of scholarships or grants through a college’s financial aid package.

There are additional private sources of funding sometimes referred to as outside scholarships (outside the colleges’ resources), private scholarships (provided by private organizations or companies), or portable scholarships (can be used at any college). There are two major steps to applying for these private scholarships, and both require large investments of time and effort.

Step A: Identify scholarships

Use print or online directories of scholarship programs to identify the scholarships that match your qualifications. FastWeb is a website where you can search for scholarships. (Note: Use of this site is free but you will need to complete a lengthy registration form.)

Step B: Apply

Determine application deadlines and apply. This step may involve acquiring application forms, filling out the applications, documenting your qualifications, and writing essays. Keep in mind that you are competing with students from around the country for a very small percentage of all the money that is available to help students pay for college.

Two important caveats:  

  1. If your college has awarded you financial aid, it may deduct all outside scholarships you receive from the amount of aid that it is offering. In other words, the scholarships you win may not decrease your Expected Family Contribution. Before you invest time and effort into applying for private scholarships, be sure to check with your college to find out if the outside aid would benefit the college rather than you.
    Obviously if your family is paying all college costs then any outside scholarships you can win will reduce your family’s college costs. In that case, go for it, and good luck!
  2. Beware of scholarship scams. Consult this web page for more about scholarship scams.


What Library Resources are Available to Help Find Financial Aid?  

MCLS libraries have many books that explain the financial aid process and directories that list specific scholarships. Search the library catalog by using the keywords: student financial aid.

What Internet Resources Should I Use to Find Financial Aid? 

Start with

  • FinAid - one of the largest and most comprehensive sources on college and university financial aid. For step-by-step instructions on how to apply for financial aid, click on the box labeled "Students" at the bottom of the page.
  • FastWeb - a searchable database of scholarships. While this site is free you will need to complete a lengthy registration form.
  • The Student Guide - a publication from the U.S. Dept. of Education website which explains the federal financial aid programs, where most financial aid comes from. The Guide is available in English and Spanish.
  • Federal Student Aid - the U.S. Dept. of Education gives advice about funding and repaying your college education.
  • FAFSA - where you can electronically file your FAFSA form. This site is from the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Completing the FAFSA - instructions on how to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • New York State Higher Education Services Corporation - explanations of New York State's Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).


More web sites on college and university financial aid:  

  • New York's Private Colleges & Universities  (pdf) has a booklet on the financial aid process and programs for private colleges in New York. Note: Paper copies are available for free at many libraries.
  • has useful information on preparing for college, including a section labeled "Pay for College" where you can search for scholarships.
  • explains state-sponsored college saving plans.
  • contains a section on paying for your education as well as military educational benefits.
  • Nellie Mae is a provider of both federal and privately funded loans for higher education.
  • Sallie Mae also provides loans for higher education.

Search the Internet for other financial aid websites

Search the Internet with the search engine Google using the phrase "student financial aid" (be sure to include the quotes). Combine this phrase with specific fields of study, such as: nursing student financial aid. 

How Can I Find Financial Aid Information for a Specific College or University?  


Websites for Financial Aid Offices at local colleges and universities:  

Non-local Colleges and Universities:  


The development of this guide was supported by Federal Library Services and Technology Act funds, awarded to the New York State Library by the Federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.

  Monroe County WebsiteCity of Rochester Website