Your child’s college education is the best investment you can make, but figuring out how to pay for it can be intimidating. A little planning goes a long way toward making the process simpler, more satisfying, and successful.

When it comes to finding financial assistance for college, encouraging your student to set a timeline and stay on track is a great step toward an affordable education.

“I think the thing with being early in the process is it gives you more time to get knowledge,” Illinois State University Assistant Director for Financial Aid Counseling Shawn Rigsby said. “The timeline has sped up dramatically. You’ve applied and been admitted, you’ve done your FAFSA, and, hopefully, you start looking right after the New Year at, ‘What school do I want to go to and what school can I afford to go to?’ and, hopefully, those are the same answer.

“Waiting is only going to put you in a position where you have fewer choices.”

Know your deadlines and benchmarks. Illinois State’s preferred filing deadline is November 15 to best position your student for financial aid.

Here is a general financial aid timeline to keep in mind, but make sure your student is aware of the specific deadlines for the schools in which he or she has interest:

Junior year of high school

By junior year, your student should be giving some thought to his or her college search. The first step is to ensure that he or she is on track academically.

Encourage your student to remain focused on achievement both inside the classroom and outside of it, pursuing extracurricular interests. For many awards, criteria for selection includes both academic successes as well as non-academic activities and unique achievements.

College students look over paperwork.

Coming up with a plan helps your student complete financial aid applications on time and maximize potential awards.

Senior year of high school

The final year of high school is show time, and it begins right away in the fall. Here are a few key moments to put on the calendar:

  • August-September: It’s time to begin searching for scholarships. Private scholarships have deadlines throughout the year, so an early start will make your student eligible for as many scholarships as possible.
  • October 1: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is available! This document is the key to unlocking many potential sources of financial assistance, so you should encourage your student to collect the appropriate documents and file the FAFSA. Take note: each state and school has unique FAFSA deadlines and procedures, so the best practice is to file as soon as possible after October 1. Some states, like Illinois, award money on a rolling basis until funds are depleted, so waiting to file may mean missing out on available funds.
  • Early fall: If you have questions regarding the FAFSA, many schools have free workshops to help students and families. Once you file, keep an eye out for any emails requesting additional documentation or corrections.
  • Mid-winter to May: Each school has its own calendar, but this is typically when universities release award letters explaining what kind of aid package they can offer your student.
  • May 1: National Decision Day. Your student must commit to his or her college of choice by May 1, unless they receive an extension beyond that date. You should know what financial aid is available at each school, and you and your family should be able to make an informed decision.
  • Mid-summer: Continue to pursue scholarships. If you or your student are going to obtain loans to help with expenses, this is the time to complete the required paperwork.
  • August-September: School starts, and your family can reap the rewards of the year’s work toward earning aid.

And beyond…

Of course, the work never really ends. Students must re-submit the FAFSA each year throughout college to continue receiving financial aid. Remember not all scholarships are renewable. Encourage your student to continue searching for new scholarships, and make sure he or she is aware of what it takes to maintain renewable awards.

By following a plan, your student will be in a position to maximize financial aid opportunities.

You can help your child start to plan by learning about Illinois State’s financial aid deadlines and scholarship profiles. Be sure to contact us with any questions.

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Financial aid isn’t the only thing to mark on your calendars when it comes to college selection. Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter designed specifically for families working through the decision-making process, and we’ll help you stay on track and get the most out of the experience.