Financial aid is available to people in need of financial help and is provided to pay for the college education dues. It is made available in the form of grants, scholarships, loans, part-time employment, etc. The amount of money awarded depends on a number of things including the degree of financial need, available funds, academic results, type of student, etc.
Your first stop is to know about FAFSA which is the free application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA is filed in January 1st to March 10th of each year either electronically or by post. Four to six weeks after your application (two to four weeks for electronic application), you will receive the SAR which is the student aid report. The SAR will detail all the information that you submitted in the FAFSA form and will describe your EFC which is the estimated family contribution, the amount of money that your family is expected to pay for your education. The funds which will be released to you as financial aid will be equal to the college tuition fee minus the EFC.
Also check whether you are required to fill out a College Scholarship Services profile (CSS) which details further financial information about your family and are required by some colleges.
You must also be aware of the types of financial aids available and your options. The common options are grants, student loans and college scholarships. Grants and student college scholarships are free money since it is not required to be returned. Grants are predominantly based on financial need while college scholarships are usually based on academic merit and are also called MERIT AID. Student loans are money loaned from an institution or the government and must be returned. You must also be aware that for many of the financial aid opportunities you are required to fill out the FAFSA but there are some opportunities like the private scholarships where you are not required to fill out any such form.
You can check with the various sources to find out the different sources of grants, loans and scholarships. You can also apply for all these types of financial aid together. You should apply for financial aid each year, even if you did not qualify for it the previous year. Circumstances change and you might qualify for a scholarship the next year.
You must also know that eligibility criteria for financial aid are various and you must apply for it regardless of your financial condition.