Navigating the waters of college financial aid is tricky business. Just ask Daniel Madzelan, a retired U.S. Department of Education official of more than three decades. Madzelan readily admits the federal financial aid process could be much simpler.
"Earlier this year I completed my 13th - and last - Free Application for Federal Student Aid," he said last week at a congressional committee hearing on federal student aid. "We still ask applicants too many questions that are too complicated."
Filling out the FASFA is only one piece of the puzzle. Students and their families must then decipher financial aid award letters and determine which college is the best fit for their interests - and their budgets.
This challenge is often compounded for students who are the first in their family to attend college. Without a parent or sibling to shepherd them, these first-generation students often flounder through the financial aid process, making missteps and missing opportunities.
"Most of my friends were only considering in-state schools for two reasons. One, our high school only had information and brochures about in-state schools. Two, they seemed so much cheaper than private institutions," Seanna Leath wrote in a recent blog post for I'm First, an online community for first-generation students. The Arkansas native now attends Pomona College in California.
"For first-generation, low-income, underrepresented students like me ... private institutions can actually be significantly cheaper than in-state, public universities," she wrote, noting that generous scholarships and grants mean she'll graduate virtually debt free, despite attending a private liberal arts college with a sticker price of just over $57,000 per year.
But too often first-gen students like Leath don't know how to move past the sticker price. Luckily, there is an array of options, including scholarships, nonprofits and support sites, to help these students finance their college education.
FirstGenerationStudent.com: The name says it all. Devoted to helping first-in-their-family students navigate the college process from beginning to end, this website has step-by-step FAFSA instructions, a reference guide that translates financial aid acronyms into real words and a guide for students who are undocumented, homeless or in foster care. First Generation Student also has information to help students find, apply to and succeed in college.
Center for Student Opportunity: As the national nonprofit behind I'm First - which features blogs and videos from first-gen students and graduates - CSO funds an annual scholarship for students who aspire to be the first in their family to earn a degree from a four-year institution. The center also partners with schools to foster on-campus support for these students and works to connect first-gen students with schools via the I'm First community.
Mytonomy: This social networking site for high schools and college students houses video testimonials and advice from students and experts. The section dedicated to first-generation students includes tips for financing college, as well as dealing with financial challenges after students enroll. Parents going through the process for the first time can also get advice from other parents and students via the videos posted to the site, several of which are in Spanish.
In addition to these sites, college counselors can give face-to-face guidance on financial aid and scholarships. Students can seek these experts out at a local college, even if it's not the school they plan to attend, said Heather McDonnell, associate dean of financial aid and admission at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, adding the majority of questions she gets can be answered by any college.
"Spend an afternoon at your neighboring college, even if you have no intention of applying. Go to one of their Saturday tours. Go to one of their information sessions ... so at least you're exposed," said McDonnell. "I wholeheartedly recommend that, particularly for those students who are first generation."
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.