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There are approximately 3,700 choices of U.S. postsecondary institutions your son or daughter can aim to enroll in as a first-year student.

As you are researching where they will apply, you will likely notice the cost differences across all degree-granting institutions.

Tuition and fees, books, educational materials (e.g., laptop), technology fees, and other mandatory student fees are a few of the essential costs that are typically associated with an undergraduate degree. Additional costs associated with attendance may include living in student housing, acquiring a meal plan, and purchasing a campus parking permit. Together these expenses contribute to the overall annual costs of collegiate education.

Because college is a significant financial investment, it is often a family decision that accounts for the varying costs of an undergraduate degree. Your 529 college savings account represents an investment for your family. It prepares you to help your student obtain the benefits of achieving higher education preparation and degree attainment. To make the most of your 529 college savings, families will do well to know about the supplemental aid available from across the higher education landscape and from schools that participate in Title IV federal financial aid programs.

Federal financial aid is one of the primary things we encourage incoming students and parents to learn about as they consider colleges. We invite students and parents to learn about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). FAFSA provides students and parents with different options that can help in paying for your child’s education. Although you have a 529 college saving plan, FAFSA can provide additional aid options for you to consider as you plan your next steps.

The FAFSA application is the primary source of financial support students relies on in pursuit of their educational goals, from their first year to graduation. This national and free application is used across all types of postsecondary education institutions. In essence, FAFSA is the leading financial aid platform used at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree levels.  Whether your child is starting his or her undergraduate degree at a 2-year or 4-year institution, the FAFSA application is the same. Even beyond the undergraduate degree, for example, when your son or daughter obtains a bachelor’s degree and wants to pursue medical school, a FAFSA application is typically utilized for medical students to afford this professional degree program. But if you accept financial aid as a result of the FAFSA, at any point in their educational journey, you or your student must reapply each year to determine their ongoing eligibility for this aid.

The college costs of undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board typically rise annually. As such, FAFSA provides different options depending on the financial background of each family and the type of institution enrolled. Ultimately, financial aid can come from federal, state, school, and private sources to help students and families pay for a college or university, but below are examples of federal aid that students may receive after submitting the FAFSA.

Grants: This program is a form of financial aid that does not typically have to be repaid. It includes Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and other federal grants. Grants can come from the federal and state governments, the postsecondary institutions where your student enrolls, and/or private or non-profit organizations.

Federal work-study: This program provides part-time employment for students with demonstrated financial need. It allows them to earn money to help pay for educational expenses. Typically, work-study students work less than 20 hours per week and may perform work related to the student’s course of program study. This program is available at most institutions to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students with financial need.

Federal Loans: If your student applies for financial aid, they may be offered loans as part of their school’s offer of financial assistance. A loan funded by the federal government is money that is borrowed and must be paid back with interest.

If you want to know more about your student’s eligibility to receive federal student aid, start by submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Also visit the U.S. Department of Education Office of Federal Student Aid which provides substantive information, resources, and videos that can be helpful when planning your investment in your student’s college experience.  If you have specific questions about your FAFSA, reach out to the Office of Financial Aid at the institution where your son or daughter plans to enroll.


Dr. Oscar Espinoza-Parra serves as Dean of Enrollment Services at College of the Desert. He holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education from Azusa Pacific University, a master’s degree and dual bachelor’s degrees from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Reno. He is a faculty member at Maryville University.