If you’re heading to college or starting to think about where you’d like to apply, you’re probably considering options for funding your education. If you need to borrow money to pursue your dreams, you are far from alone.
According to the Federal Reserve, 30% of all U.S. adults said they incurred at least some debt for their education. Borrowers owe a collective $1.77 trillion in student loan debt, including federal and private loans.
“Borrowing is almost at the point where it’s a requirement,” said Dana Kelly, from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
If you’re a high school senior or a college student, you’ll want to apply for federal student loans through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA, in December for the 2024-2025 school year. For private student loans, you can apply whenever you need the loan.
When you take out student loans, it’s beneficial have to have an idea of what professional field you want to pursue, calculate how much you need to borrow, and understand the basics of loan interest. If this sound like a lot, don’t worry — we’ll break it down for you. Here’s what you need to know.
WHERE DO I START?
The first step is to fill out the FAFSA. You will have to answer questions about your family’s financial contribution, along with other questions that will help determine if you qualify for federal or state financial aid and which loans you can apply for. You’ll fill out the application each year.
Cathy Mueller, executive director of Mapping Your Future, a non-profit that helps people navigate higher education, recommends exhausting every possible funding option to reduce the amount you need to borrow.
If you’re looking to apply for scholarships to fund your college education, you can check out the College Board’s scholarship search directory.
As you fill out the FAFSA, Mueller recommends that you estimate the amount you will need to borrow for your entire college career, but also be realistic about what you will be able to pay back.
A tool that can help is the Debt/Salary wizard from Mapping Your Future, an interactive calculator that helps determine how much you can borrow based on your estimated future earnings.
WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT DATES TO KNOW?
In previous years, the FAFSA opened on Oct. 1. This year, the government is making big changes and the application will be available in December, but the date has not yet been announced. The FAFSA application usually closes the following June.
Once the application is open, you need to check your state’s deadline to apply for state financial aid. Since financial aid is first-come, first-served, you’ll want to apply as soon as you can to qualify for both federal and state grants.
For private student loans, the timeline looks different. Private lenders require you to have proof of enrollment, so experts recommend you apply a couple of months before your tuition is due.