Unlocking opportunities: A family’s guide to college financial aid and scholarships

Unlocking opportunities: A family’s guide to college financial aid and scholarships

Piggy bank wrapped in chains with padlock

When college is right around the corner for your child, the question of how to afford this investment looms large. Whether you’re able to help your child pay for college or not, there are options available. Understanding financial aid is crucial for unlocking funding opportunities for your teen’s educational journey. Here are some basics and helpful tips for parents.

How to apply for financial aid

The first step to obtaining most types of financial aid is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), which opens in December. The FAFSA determines the financial need of the student and provides the colleges you select with your FAFSA results, known as an SAI (Student Aid Index). Your student must re-submit a FAFSA form each year to remain eligible for federal student aid. The FAFSA is due each June 30 after the following academic year, meaning it is open for about 18 months. However, note that many schools will set an earlier deadline for determining financial aid for students. UNI has a priority deadline of Feb. 15, meaning your student should submit the FAFSA by then to ensure their best opportunities for financial aid when attending the University of Northern Iowa. UNI’s school code for the FAFSA is 001890.

Types of financial aid


Scholarships do not need to be paid back. They may be awarded based on academic merit, athletic achievement, community involvement, financial need or other reasons.

At UNI, scholarships may come from one of three places. They may be admissions-based, meaning they are automatic scholarships awarded when your student is admitted to UNI without requiring any additional steps. They may be scholarships from the Office of Financial Aid & Scholarships, which your student can view in a letter they will receive from this office. Lastly, they could be departmental, meaning the scholarship is awarded by various departments across campus and can include scholarships from donors. To be considered for these scholarships, a student must complete the UNI Scholarship Application. UNI awards more than $29 million in scholarships to students every year!

How to find scholarships

Schools like UNI have their own scholarship application to streamline the process of applying for hundreds scholarships at once. However, to maximize their chances of being awarded scholarships, your teen may still want to apply for even more opportunities. 

Here are some more ideas on how to find scholarships:

  • Online search engines and databases: Utilize scholarship search engines like FastwebScholarships.com and College Board's Scholarship Search to explore a vast array of scholarship opportunities based on academic merit, extracurricular involvement, demographics and more.
  • Local and community organizations: Look into scholarships offered by local businesses, community groups and religious organizations. These scholarships might have less competition and cater specifically to students within their locality.
  • Professional associations: Many professional organizations offer scholarships related to specific fields of study. Students pursuing degrees in these fields may find tailored scholarship opportunities.

It’s important when you’re looking at scholarships to be wary of scams. Teach your student to research the scholarships thoroughly before surrendering any private information.


Grants are need-based financial aid, and they generally do not need to be repaid. Pell Grants, which are reserved for students who display exceptional financial need, are a common type of federal grant. Another one is the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant, which is for students who go into teaching. Your teen can also apply for grants at the state level. For example, Iowa residents are considered for state grants by completing the FAFSA and the Iowa Financial Aid Application, which is included at the end of the FAFSA. Lastly, institutional grants could be available from the school your teen attends.

Work Study

Work study is another type of need-based financial aid. It provides on-campus jobs. Undergraduate students are paid hourly, typically at the federal minimum wage although it can be more. The money earned from work study can go toward tuition or other living expenses. In addition to helping pay for college, work study is a great way to gain work experience.


Unlike other types of financial aid, student loans must be repaid. If they are federal, loans may be need-based (subsidized) or not need-based (unsubsidized). Federal loans can be need-based (subsidized) or not need-based (unsubsidized). Subsidized loans don't accrue interest while the borrower is in school, during grace periods, or deferment. Unsubsidized loans accrue interest from the loan's disbursement. The most prevalent federal loan is the Direct Loan, available to eligible undergraduates and graduates directly from the U.S. Department of Education. These loans don't require a credit check but have a small origination fee upon disbursement. As a parent, you can apply for a Direct PLUS Loan (also known as a Parent PLUS Loan) to assist with paying for your teen’s education. These loans are credit-based and would have the parent as the primary borrower.  

There is also the option of private student loans that can be obtained through a private lender. However, you’ll find that federal loans have lower interest rates and more flexible terms compared to private loans. Private loans should only be utilized when all other financial aid options have been exhausted. Your student can take out these loans directly, or you can take out a parent loan to help them pay for college.

Since they have to be paid back, loans are usually the least desirable option for financial aid. It’s important to take only what you need when it comes to loans. If your student does end up taking out this form of financial aid, it’s crucial that they know how to properly manage their money. This is why the University of Northern Iowa has a financial literacy requirement for all incoming freshmen. Students can choose from an in-person or online course. Either way, they will learn budgeting, bill paying, loan responsibility and more.

Application strategies

Once your teen has identified potential sources of financial aid and scholarships, you can assist them with their applications in a few key ways:

  • Help them stay organized: Keep track of application deadlines, requirements and necessary documents. Suggest creating a calendar to ensure timely submission of applications.
  • Proofread their essays: Many scholarship applications require essays or personal statements. These should highlight your student’s achievements, goals and how the scholarship aligns with their aspirations. Help your teen ensure their essays are compelling and free of grammar and punctuation errors.
  • Encourage them to find strong recommendations: Some applications will also require personal recommendations. Your teen should request recommendation letters from teachers, mentors or employers who can speak to their academic prowess, character and accomplishments.
  • Make sure they follow instructions carefully: The requirements of each application your teen submits will vary. Double-check their applications to ensure proper formatting and word count among other criteria. 

Take control of college costs: explore financial aid and scholarships at UNI!

When you know how to apply for financial aid and understand the different types, a school’s sticker price is seldom the price your teen will actually pay for their education. Keep in mind that your student will likely utilize financial aid and scholarships from a variety of sources to help them pay for college.

If you have more questions about the different types of financial aid, UNI can help! Talk to the Office of Financial Aid & Scholarships at UNI. Our staff will be happy to guide you through this sometimes confusing process. Plus, if your teen chooses UNI, they have already selected the most affordable public university in Iowa. This makes the process of applying for financial aid and scholarships a little less stressful.

Real, relevant academic excellence for a world that expects future-ready graduates.

  • 94% of UNI grads find success within six months of graduation.
  • UNI graduates more teachers than any other university in Iowa.
  • UNI graduates more CPAs than anywhere in Iowa.
  • UNI is ranked a top regional public university by U.S. News & World Report.
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