January 09, 2024 | Matt KucinskiPaula Elenbaas

For many high school seniors and their families, choosing which university to attend can be daunting. Once you hone in on your top choices, the tiebreaker in your decision may be affordability: how much financial aid can you get? What’s the final price tag? Getting the answer is so much easier with a guide—an expert who has been in your place.

Enter Paula Elenbaas. She’s worked in financial aid at Calvin for the past nine years. Before that, as a mom of five, which includes triplets, she was trying to navigate the financial aid process herself. She admits she was confused then. So, now she works hard to ensure students and families can easily understand the financial aid process and get every bit of aid they qualify for.

Elenbaas shares six tips any high school student, transfer student, or returning adult learner can use to make their college education more affordable.

1. Ask these questions

Once you have narrowed down your choices to 5-10 schools, review each school’s website for this financial aid information: what scholarships do they offer? Do they also offer grants? Do your high school GPA or test scores make you eligible for additional aid? (For example, at Calvin a GPA of 3.0 or higher will get you an academic scholarship that ranges from $10,000-22,000.) Do you need to apply for financial aid, and what are the deadlines and requirements? In Calvin’s case, if you are a Michigan resident, you may be eligible for up to $7,000 in grants just from the State of Michigan.

2. Submit your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)

To be considered for need-based financial aid (grants from college and state sources, plus grants and loans from Federal Student Aid), submit a FAFSA (studentaid.gov). (If you are not a US Citizen, Calvin has an International Financial Form you can submit.) The FAFSA went through a complete overhaul for 2024-2025 and the application opened in late December. It’s easier – less questions – and will take just 5-10 minutes to complete. You can send the FAFSA to up to 20 different colleges. TIP: submit your FAFSA by January 31 so you can be considered for a wider group of Calvin’s Named Scholarships (more on that opportunity in #3 below).

3. Apply for ALL the scholarships

Make a list of colleges you’re considering. Visit those on your short list. (At Calvin you will get a $2,000 Visit Grant just for visiting.)

Spend time on the financial aid websites of the schools you are considering and pay attention to opportunities for scholarships that you may hear about from your admissions counselor and emails you may receive from the college. For example, at Calvin University you can apply for 1500+ Named Scholarships each year by submitting just one application. Apply by January 31–you don’t need to figure out which scholarships to apply for – just apply!

4. Work

Build your resume as you pay for college. A summer job is a great way to help cover the cost of college! Start applying for jobs or internships by early spring. Know before spring break what you’ll do for the summer so you can get to work right away after graduating from high school. Also, know that at Calvin University you’ll be able to work on campus – we have a huge variety of student jobs ranging from working in a biology lab to doing medical research with professors to leading campus tours to planning intramurals. If you work about 10 hours a week, you’ll earn about $3,000 during the school year. Also, many of our juniors and seniors land well-paid internships while at Calvin, helping them not only earn money to pay for college, but also helping them build a resume and figure out what they want to do in that first job.

5. Be Patient

Once you’ve applied for admission, for need-based financial aid (by submitting your FAFSA), and for Named Scholarships, your job is to enjoy your senior year and wait to make your final college decision until you have all the information you need. Your admissions letter from Calvin University will include some information about financial aid – your academic scholarships and other merit awards. We aim each year to send out your complete financial aid letter in mid-to-late February. With the delay in FAFSAs being sent to colleges, it could be mid-March when these are sent in 2024.

6. Questions about your financial aid? Connect with your financial aid office!

Comparing financial aid packages from different schools can be confusing. If you have questions about your financial aid, please email Calvin Financial Aid at finaid@calvin.edu – we love to work with students and families to explain financial aid and make Calvin affordable. Sometimes a family has what we call “special circumstances” that affects a family’s ability to pay for college—maybe your family’s income has been reduced, or they are paying for younger children’s K-12 private education, or you have high medical expenses in your family that you’re paying out of pocket. You can tell us about that by using the Calvin Special Circumstances Form. We will use that form to determine if you’re eligible for additional need-based grants based on your family’s finances.

Recent stories