Funding Your Future: Financial Aid at Public Colleges

Public colleges are known for being affordable. But you may still need help from financial aid. Here's what to know about funding your public college education.

Nowhere else on Earth will you find a public university system like the one in the United States. It’s big, accessible, comprehensive, and pretty inexpensive too, especially if you stay “in state.” But as affordable as public schools can be, you and your family may not be able to cover all the costs. Don’t worry—you’re not alone. You may be shocked by some universities’ tuition rates, even for in-state students, but you shouldn’t rule a school out based on sticker price. There are plenty of options available to help defray the cost of obtaining a four-year degree.

The term “financial aid” refers broadly to the various types of funding available to students: scholarships, grants, loans, etc. The grand prize in the pursuit of financial aid is, of course, money that you would not repay (sometimes referred to as “gift aid”). Organizations that award gift aid, including postsecondary institutions, do so based on qualities or attributes they particularly value or wish to celebrate. There seems to be no limit to the nature and diversity of criteria for gift aid, and the most common categories of such aid are merit-based, need-based, talent-based, and athletic scholarships and grants.

How to apply for aid

Universities vary considerably in the paperwork needed to apply for financial aid, but it all starts with submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The government uses the FAFSA (and the FAFSA alone!) to determine your need-based awards. Some colleges and universities require only the FAFSA, while others have supplemental financial aid forms for their institution that must be submitted as well. A handful of public schools use the College Board’s CSS Profile to determine students’ eligibility for merit-based aid. Unlike the FAFSA, the Profile isn't free; you must pay for each school you choose to receive a report. You should always check before filing the CSS Profile to see if the school requests it. Most of these forms are available online and can be submitted electronically. Check institutional websites carefully to be sure that you don’t miss any other required documents. If you are unsure or have any questions throughout this process, don’t be afraid to contact the financial aid office at the school(s) you’re applying to. They are there to help you!

The FAFSA cannot be submitted until after October 1 of the fall prior to the year you wish to enroll. You fill it out only once and submit the information to all institutions where you have applied for admission. You will need to file a FAFSA each year to continue receiving federal aid. Financial aid forms have comment sections where you can explain unusual circumstances or unexpected expenses. Financial aid officers are not under any obligation to consider these variables, but they often do. Remember that financial information is gathered from the prior tax year; if circumstances have changed since then, you should explain how so. The FAFSA, the Profile, and any other institutional forms provide the income and asset information that generate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This is an estimate of your family’s ability to pay all or some portion of the total cost of attending the institution for one year. Your family’s need is determined by subtracting the EFC from the total cost. If the college or university is less expensive, you might not have any need at all, but if it is expensive, your need could be significant. Your entire need, or some portion of it, will be met by a combination of grants, loans, and work-study. 

Related: The Best Advice and Resources for Filling Out the FAFSA

Types of aid

There are numerous types of aid you can expect to encounter—and ever receive—when attending a public university and receiving a financial aid package.

Merit aid

Some students may be offered merit aid based on their outstanding academic performance in the classroom or high standardized test scores. Honors programs within larger university systems often come with generous scholarships as well—just keep in mind that the school may require a separate application. Make sure your official transcripts and test scores reach the colleges and universities in a timely manner.

Talent awards

Competition for special talent and athletic awards is usually very tough, and you’ll almost certainly have to audition or try out to be considered. If you’re applying from far away, sending a video can be very helpful, and keeping in touch with coaches or performing arts instructors is essential. If you visit any distant campuses, be sure to arrange auditions and interviews in advance. Most athletic scholarships are offered based on the coaching staff’s firsthand viewing and evaluation of your athletic performance, so getting an athletic scholarship without ever meeting the coaching staff or having them see you play would be unusual. Athletic scholarships are only offered by a limited number of institutions by virtue of their division within the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Need-based aid

When applying for need-based aid, you and your family will have to demonstrate eligibility for federal aid programs, distributed in the form of grants, loans, or work-study. Your financial aid package will probably include all three. Remember that grants don’t have to be repaid, making them the most desirable part of the aid offer. Low-interest, government-subsidized loans are appealing and helpful, but eventually they will have to be repaid as well. College work-study is an excellent way to earn additional money for personal or educational expenses, and it generally does not take time away from studying or social activities. However, it usually only covers a small portion of the overall cost.

Related: All the Important Financial Aid Terms You Need to Know


Loans are available to both students and parents. Many do not require repayment or accrue interest until you graduate from your college or university. Private education loans (via your neighborhood bank or credit union, for example) generally have higher interest rates than federal loans, so make sure you’ve exhausted all other forms of aid before going this route. Financial aid officers can help you qualify for and select the right loan program for you and your family.

Outside scholarships

In addition to applying for federal, state, and institutional aid, you should apply for as many scholarships as you possibly can. The competition for big national awards may seem intimidating, but if you’re eligible, you should apply! Treat the scholarship search like you did the college search; be thorough in your research, devote plenty of time to it, and submit only your best work. You have nothing to lose and plenty to gain. And don’t forget to look for “niche” scholarships that fit your unique talents and interests. Whether you’re a skilled oboe player, a chemistry whiz, or an avid bird watcher, there is a scholarship out there for you! Use internet search tools jump-start your search, or just Google things like “oboe” plus “scholarship.” You can narrow down your results by adding your state or the names of potential universities.

Making your money count

Even schools with relatively low tuition rates can still be expensive, but there are plenty of ways to cut the cost of college! For example, many students begin their studies by earning general education credits at less expensive community colleges before transferring to a four-year school. Most public universities accept transfer credits from community colleges, and some have articulation agreements that make the process even easier. Sites like and help community college students in New Hampshire and Indiana, respectively, see what classes transfer to their state universities. With careful planning, you could still graduate from your four-year school within two years. You should also be a smart saver: consider working before you leave for college to stockpile some extra money.

Related: Understanding (and Maximizing) Your College Financial Aid Package

Remember that financial aid officers are there to help you and to make sure you've done all you can to maximize your chances for financial assistance. Keep in touch with them throughout the process if you have questions or concerns about the FAFSA or your aid package once you receive it. Stay organized and keep your eye on the goal. Great rewards are possible if you put in the effort to seek and attain them.

Help yourself with college costs by throwing yourself into the scholarship search—starting with these Easy No-Essay Scholarships You Need to Know About.

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