The new school year is about to start — and high school seniors should be busy completing college applications. The Common Application, which is accepted by more than 800 schools, has been available to complete since Aug. 1.

Most students may be thinking of applications, letters of recommendation and campus visits. But most parents are thinking of financial aid and how to pay for college.

Now is a great time to get the information together that will be needed to be ready apply for financial aid. The Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2019-2020 school year will be available Oct. 1, 2018.

The information used to determine a family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) includes the parent’s income and assets, the student’s income and assets, the number in the family, the number of students going to college and the age of the oldest parent. The EFC produced from the FAFSA will determine if a family is a Category 1, Category 2 or Category 3 family. A category 1 family will demonstrate a financial need at almost all colleges, a category 2 family may demonstrate financial need at some colleges and a category 3 family will most likely need to concentrate on schools that offer merit based aid as well as tax-advantaged aid. There is still plenty of time to put strategies in place to increase financial need based aid.

The FAFSA is used to determine Federal funded student aid, and many colleges and universities use the FAFSA to allocate their need-based awards — including grants, scholarships and work study. It is important to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible to maximize need-based aid that is available from the school. Most schools track the order FAFSA applications are submitted to determine who will get the aid that they have available.

Completing the FAFSA also enables a student to take out the Stafford (Direct) student loan — as long as the school he or she plans to attend accepts Federal Aid. A freshman will be able to borrow $5,500, a sophomore can borrow $6,500 and juniors and seniors can borrow $7,500 each year. There is an additional $4,000 available if a student takes longer than four years to graduate.

There are many ways to help lower the overall cost of college. High scores on Advanced Placement, or AP, exams equates to college credits at most colleges. Many students also can take advantage of dual enrollment programs from their local community college, including Northwestern Michigan College. The dual-enrolled classes are generally free of charge or offered at a reduced cost. The courses enable a student to earn both high school and college credit from the same course. Keep in mind that some colleges and universities have a limit to the number of credits they will allow.

Another option to earn college credits is the College Level Examination Program, also known as CLEP. Students can take a CLEP exam through College Board on a large variety of topics. Preparing for the exam is key, and it can result in college credits.

Students should make sure that they are taking at least 15 credits each college semester in order to graduate in four years (or less if they have credits going into college). Make sure that you start with graduation in mind, mapping out what classes you need to take each year so that you aren’t surprised with an unexpected extra semester or two.

Planning for college is critical. There are many resources available to help you find the right school for your student at the right price. Paying for college will be similar to buying a car — each year that your student is in college. Depending on the size of your family, you it may end up being a fleet of cars. There are steps you can take now to lower the cost of your fleet of cars.

Take advantage of Michigan College Planning’s College Planning workshop — there are many free workshops scheduled in the area starting in September. Visit locations and dates. The workshops are informative and include steps you can take right now to assure you understand the cost of attendance and how you can afford college.

Vicki L. Beam is a college planner at Michigan College Planning located in Traverse City. She encourages questions and comments about future columns. Contact Michigan College Planning at (231)947-0203, by email at and at

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