How Do I
We’ll show you the money, and how to get it. Learn about financial aid, completing the FAFSA, student loans, and more.
Interested in free money to pay for school? Scholarships can really pay off, if you’re willing to put in the work.
Tuition, fees, room and board, books…it all adds up. We’ll help you understand what you’re paying for, and ways to stretch your money.
Check out these resources for youth in foster care and students with disabilities.
Paying for School
For many students, education is their first investment opportunity - an opportunity to invest in their future by going to school. Education after high school is within reach and we have the tools and resources to help you make it happen.
Financial aid helps make education more affordable. The federal government is the largest source of financial aid for education after high school.
There are three main categories of financial aid: Scholarships and Grants, Loans, and Work Study. Scholarships and grants do not have to be repaid, but student loans do require repayment. Work Study provides students with access to on-campus jobs. Some students may also be eligible for tuition waivers.
Changing financial circumstances during the pandemic are a cause for concern, find out how your financial aid office may be able to assist.
Karina Moulton from Helena College shares financial aid tips for students and parents.
Need help with financial aid? Every Montana college has financial aid professionals on staff, and they are the experts when it comes to the finer points of financial aid. You can contact financial aid staff at the college you plan to attend or at the college closest to you (even if you plan to attend college elsewhere).
The FAFSA: Opening Doors to Financial Resources
Paying for college starts with the FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the starting point for financial aid, including federal grants, loans, work-study, and scholarships. In most cases, the federal government sees students (24 years or younger) as dependent, which is why parents are required to provide financial information to complete the FAFSA.Read More
Complete The FAFSA in Four Easy Steps:
- Tap into our resources. Download our Parent’s Guide to the FAFSA to walk you through the process, the materials needed, and answers to your toughest FAFSA questions.
- Create an FSA ID. Both the student and one parent need to create an FSA ID (username and password). It’s part of the process to verify who you are when filing the FAFSA and is used to sign your FAFSA before submitting.
- File the FAFSA. The FAFSA takes roughly 30 minutes to complete and requires both information from the parent and the student. Details needed include demographic information, personal information and financial information. Download our Parent’s Guide to the FAFSA for the list of materials to have in-hand when filing. Students and their parents will be able to submit the 2019-2020 FAFSA in a web browser on a mobile phone or a tablet. Students and their parents can also download the free myStudentAid app from the Google Play or Apple App Store to submit the FAFSA using the myFAFSA component of the app.
- Click "Submit" Before the December 1st Priority Deadline! The FAFSA opens October 1 each year, and every minute counts when filing your FAFSA. Schools only have so much funding available and those students who have submitted their FAFSA by the priority deadline of December 1 have the greatest chance to receive funds for which they may be eligible.
- What if you file after December 1? You can file the FAFSA at any time. Filing after December 1 may limit the amount of aid you receive, but you should still file the FAFSA, regardless.
I Submitted my FAFSA…Now What?
The information from your FAFSA will be sent to the schools you identified when you applied. The financial aid office at each school will then package your financial aid offer, and send you an award letter notifying you of the resources the school will be able to provide to help you pay for your education.
Your award letter will outline:
- Cost of Attendance (COA): the estimated “all-in” cost for you to attend the college. COA includes tuition, fees, books, transportation, and living expenses. COA is not the sticker price; it’s an estimate of what the total cost will be for you to attend the college on annual basis.
- Expected Family Contribution (EFC): the EFC is the federal government estimate of the amount your family should be able to contribute toward your education. While your EFC may seem unrealistic (and it probably is), this figure is derived from a federal formula to determine your financial need. If your EFC = 0, you will have access to additional resources, like Pell Grants and Subsidized Student Loans, to help you pay for college.
- Unmet Need: If the COA is greater than the EFC, you have unmet financial need.
- Offer: The award letter will list the resources the financial aid office can provide to help you address your unmet need: scholarships, grants, loans, and work study.
- Be sure to accept your offer by the deadline provided to ensure you receive these resources. Likewise, if you decide to attend one college and have offers from other colleges, let the financial aid offices at the colleges you will not be attending know of your decision so they can offer the aid you would have received to other students.
What If My Financial Situation Has Changed?
The FAFSA uses tax information from two years prior to determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Most of the time, this works great. Sometimes, though, things change drastically in the two-year timeframe from when you filed your FAFSA – job changes and family situations, for example.
If this happens to you, be sure to communicate with your financial aid office. Based on the situation and documentation provided, the financial aid office may be able to make adjustments to your financial aid award.
On the FAFSA, there is an option to check the work-study option. Work-study is money you earn by working a job assigned to you from the school. We always advise students to check this box so the opportunity is available to them. You can always say no later.
Scholarship funds come from all kinds of sources – local charities, foundations, businesses, and schools all provide scholarship funds. Outside scholarships refers to awards made outside of the college; institutional aid is funding available from each specific college.Read More
The award letter you receive from your college may include institutional aid, such as scholarships and grants, which have been awarded based on your financial situation. This is great! Most institutional aid is awarded only to students who have filed the FAFSA.
You can always pursue outside scholarship funds to help you pay for your education. Be sure to notify the financial aid office if you receive an outside award. Most scholarship providers will send the money you’ve received directly to the college.
Grants are often need-based aid, and do not have to be repaid. Need-based grants support students who need financial help to pay for school, and meet specific eligibility criteria. The most common grant is the Federal Pell Grant. Pell grants are awarded to those who demonstrate exceptional financial need.
To learn more about grants and financial aid, visit Federal Student Aid.
Student loans can come from the government, your school or private lenders. A loan is something you have to pay back, so only borrow the amount you truly need!
There are several types of student loans:Read More
Federal Student Loans - students must complete the FAFSA to be eligible.
- Direct Subsidized Loan – Based on financial need, the student is NOT charged interest while enrolled at least half time.
- Direct Unsubsidized Loan – Not based on financial need, the student is charged interest during all periods of the loan.
- Direct Parent Plus Loan –Not based on financial need, the parent is the borrower and responsible for repayment, the parent is charged interest during all periods of the loan.
Private Loans – an option if other resources have already been utilized. Terms vary widely, so be sure you understand private loans before borrowing.
Always accept grant and scholarship offers first. If accepting loans, borrow only what you need to cover educational expenses.
Tuition waivers are non-cash scholarships that cover the cost of tuition, but do not cover fees, books, or other expenses. Rules and restrictions apply, and vary by category. The Montana University System offers waivers to students who meet specific criteria.
Understanding College Costs
Going to college is a significant investment of time and money. By understanding the costs of college, you may be able to save by: comparing costs at various institutions; exploring other college expenses and ways to address them; and discovering strategies to minimize student debt.
Breaking Down College Costs
There are five main categories of expenses to consider when calculating how much your college education is really going to cost: tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, personal expenses, and transportation.
- Tuition and Fees
Tuition and fees are the price you pay for taking classes at your college. This amount can change based on your academic program and the number of credits you take.
- Room and Board
Room and board is the basic cost of living for students – where you live, and what you eat. Colleges offer a variety of dorm room options and meal plans for students who live on campus. If you live at home or off-campus, estimate your actual costs for rent and meals.
- Books and Supplies
You’ll need books and other course materials to support what you learn in the classroom. Actual amounts vary based on program of study and specific classes each semester. You may be able to reduce the costs for books and supplies by renting books, or purchasing used books.
- Personal Expenses
You have the most control over your personal expenses, which includes costs of eating out, cell phone bills, laundry, and anything else you normally spend.
How much will it cost to travel back and forth from home to campus? Can you take public transportation to get around town while you are at school? How much does it cost to park a car on campus? Include the cost of transportation in your overall estimate of the cost of college.
Strategies to Minimize Debt
Many students have concerns about going into debt to pay for their education. While student loans are an important tool to help make education attainable, students should be mindful of the amount borrowed – it has to be repaid, and is (or will be) accruing interest. Students should consider the following strategies to minimize the amount they borrow for education costs:
- Freshman 15: Not pounds, credits! In the Montana University System, you pay the same price for 15 credits as you do for 12. Take at least one extra class per semester, and you can shorten your time to degree, which saves big money.
- Summer School: Most colleges offer summer sessions, and if your college offers classes you need during the summer, take advantage. This can shorten your time to degree, and time = money.
- Textbook Savvy: Ask your professors how much they’ll use the textbook for the course. Often, the school library will have textbooks available that you can use for free. If your class will use the textbook infrequently, you may be able to use the copy in the library instead of purchasing your own copy. If you do need to have your own textbook, consider renting the book or sharing the book (and the cost) with a classmate. Finally, see if the textbook is available electronically. An e-book may cost less, and it’s environmentally friendly.
- Live Like a Student: College is a great time to develop smart money habits, and living within your means is a good habit to start. Be careful about unnecessary spending, especially if you are spending borrowed money. Shop second-hand stores, clip coupons, and walk or ride your bike for transportation.
- Pay Your Interest: If you can, make interest payments on your student loans while you are in school. It’s totally optional, but this strategy can help keep your balance under control.
- Work…Just Not Too Much: Having a job while you are in school can help you offset your expenses. You might even find a job in the field you are studying, which will give you valuable experience to complement your education. Just be careful not to work so much that your school work suffers.
Resources for youth in foster care and students with disabilities
Resources for Youth in Foster Care
Youth in foster care are amazing people and we love supporting them on their paths to education after high school. All students need financial and emotional support when thinking about the next steps in life, and we offer guidance and funding to help these special students achieve their education dreams.
Reach Higher Montana Summit
What better way to experience college life than to spend four days on a Montana college campus, sleeping in the dorms, eating in the cafeteria, attending “classes”, and more importantly hanging out with other students JUST LIKE YOU! During the Reach Higher Montana Summit, youth learn about wellness, career and employment prep, budgeting and finance, academic support and SO MUCH more!
As an added bonus, participants can take home a FREE laptop to assist with the next steps in their education, or a life skills package to help them transition to independent living.
For more information about the Summit, contact Programs Manager Rhonda Safford at (406) 422-1275 x 800 or rsafford@ReachHigherMontana.org.
Foster Care Education and Training Voucher program
Montana foster care youth are eligible to apply for the Foster Care Educational Training Voucher (ETV) program, which provides eligible youth with up to $5,000 per year to pay for educational expenses.
Who qualifies? Students Who Are:
- Currently in foster care and likely to age out of the foster care system; or
- Aged-out of the foster care system; or
- Adopted or placed into guardianship from foster care after reaching age 16, or
- Have been under tribal court jurisdiction and meet the above eligibility criteria.
Download the ETV application. The priority deadlines for the program are December 15 for students planning on attending spring and summer courses, and July 1 for fall courses or the full school year.
Resources for Students with Disabilities
For students with disabilities, attending college can be a challenge and paying for it after high school is not any easier. Fortunately there are resources available to help students with disabilities identify funding opportunities for their education.
- National Center for Students with Disabilities allows students to find free information related to attending college as a student with any kind of disability. It allows people to ask questions or get help with disability-related issues, find stats, access Research Briefs specific to issues concerning people with disabilities, and more. To learn more, check out this video and visit their website.
- Montana Vocational Rehabilitation Services provides pre-employment transition services for high school students with disabilities. They can help assess career potentials, provide training, and identify appropriate paths to help students with disabilities achieve their career potential.
- Montana University System Disability Services is committed to ensuring full and equal participation by eliminating barriers and making accommodations that allow persons with disabilities to have equal opportunity in all aspects of campus life.
- Do-It: Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology DO-IT "serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology." Here they provide resources specifically aimed at supporting students with disabilities in funding their education.
- Comprehensive Transition and Post-Secondary Program (CTP) provides funding and opportunities for students with intellectual disabilites to pursue academic, career and independent living instruction leading to gainful employment.
- Scholarships for Students with Disabilities - This guide offers a comprehensive and valuable list of scholarship and grant programs.