Let’s start with looking at the difference between financial aid and scholarships.

Technically, financial aid package is a kind of a big picture term that generally includes all forms of student monetary assistance, including loans, work-study programs, grants, and scholarships. In the college application world, often (not always) financial aid is defined as need based and most scholarships as merit based. (So just keep in mind there’s a lot of overlap between these categories.)

Federal financial aid

Applying for federal financial aid begins with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) the October before your student or graduate goes off to college. Yearly forms will then be submitted to qualify for and retain financial aid until college graduation.

Applying online will result in a much quicker response than completing the paper application (days versus weeks). Also, the online version prompts you to answer every question—a helpful feature, since any missing information will significantly delay application processing.

Here are general guidelines for homeschooling families filling out the FAFSA:

  • The FAFSA may be filed as early as October 1 using information from the previous year’s federal income tax forms.
  • The question “What will your high school completion status be when you begin college?” can confuse parents because the response options include both high school diploma and homeschooled. Students graduating with a homeschool diploma in compliance with their state’s homeschool law should choose homeschooled for this answer.
  • After submitting the FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that lists your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)—the amount that the federal government determines you should pay towards college costs based on the financial information in your application.
  • The SAR and EFC are sent to the colleges of your choice, which will use it to determine the financial aid packages of federal grants, work study, and loans they will offer your teen. Many colleges give out financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis—so apply early!
  • To continue your student’s eligibility for financial aid, complete a FAFSA renewal form each year.

Nonfederal financial aid

To apply for nonfederal aid from nearly 400 colleges, universities, and professional schools, submit the CSS Profile, which can be done online. As with the FAFSA, new and renewal CSS Profile applications may be submitted beginning in October for the following school year. Students who have qualified for an SAT fee waiver may also qualify for up to eight CSS Profile fee waivers.

State-dependent scholarships

Some states offer merit scholarships to resident students attending in-state colleges and universities. Examples of these include Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship; Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship; West Virginia’s Promise Scholarship; Louisiana’s TOPS scholarships; and South Carolina’s Palmetto Fellows Scholarship, LIFE Scholarship, and Hope Scholarship.

Keys to success in applying for state-dependent scholarships include academic achievement, college entrance test scores, and adherence to deadlines. Each state has its own qualifications for the eligibility of homeschooled students. If you’re an HSLDA member, feel free to contact our legal department with questions about your state’s scholarship application process.

College-dependent scholarships

These scholarships are often sponsored by alumni through donations or fundraisers. At some colleges, teens apply for these separately from college financial aid (e.g. grants, loans, and work-study). At other colleges, all scholarships are awarded as part of the complete financial aid package, so no additional application is required.

Each college has its own policy on freshman scholarships and how a gap year or community college credits could affect student eligibility. The college’s financial aid office is your best source of information. Again, deadlines are important, so begin to gather college-specific information early in your teen’s junior or senior year of high school.

For college-dependent scholarships, keys to success are high SAT, ACT, or CLT test scores, academic achievement (AP, dual enrollment, and honors courses), and extracurricular activities.

Independent scholarships

There are many sources of independent scholarships, from foundations, civic groups, and local businesses to community organizations and large companies. Recipients may use the money at any college. The most well-known is the National Merit Scholarship, which uses PSAT/NMSQT test scores as the first step toward qualification. (Colleges and universities that accept the CLT exam also offer merit scholarships.) Other opportunities include competitions with monetary awards for winners and top finalists.

Most independent scholarships are one-time gifts. Check to see if your student can reapply the following year. Some scholarships are only available to high school seniors. Other scholarships are open to all high school students, and this makes grades 10 and 11 good years to compete for various scholarships.

Many public high schools include lists of local scholarships on their websites. Some schools also offer a college financial aid seminar that is open to the public.

Special considerations for homeschoolers

If a scholarship or other financial aid opportunity doesn’t explicitly state that homeschooled students may apply, don’t assume they cannot. Instead, contact the organization directly—many will accept homeschooled students if you ask. For example, U.S. News and World Report’s Path to College Scholarship originally indicated that only public and private school students were eligible. After being contacted by HSLDA, it revised its requirements to include homeschooled students.

You’ll want to check whether extra documentation is required beyond a high school transcript, such as course descriptions, extracurricular activity, information, or letters of recommendation.

Researching and applying for financial aid is not only a great learning opportunity, but it also gives your student a stake in their college education. You can deepen your teen’s engagement by partnering with them in the process and clearly communicating the tasks you expect them to take responsibility for. Your student’s efforts can make a real difference in defraying college costs.