What is The Universal College Application, and When Do I Need to Complete It?

The Universal College Application allows students to apply to any of the 46 higher education institutions in the United States that participate. Some schools may require completion of their own application materials in addition to the Universal College Application.

The application itself is comprised of five pages that must be completed online by the student in order to submit the application. A final page allows students to choose the college or colleges to which they want to apply.

In addition to the application itself, students may be required to submit other documents such as SAT or ACT scores, school reports, recommendations, and other school-related information. Students pay the same application fees that would otherwise be required by the participating school. The application fees are paid directly to the schools, and there is no extra charge to apply using the universal college application.

What Types of Financial Assistance are Available?

In general, there are four types of financial assistance available for higher education costs. They are:

  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Loans
  • Work-study

Scholarships are comprised of money you are given based on qualifications such as financial need or academic merit. You do not usually have to pay back the money you receive, though some scholarships and grants may require you to maintain a certain grade point average or remain in a particular field of study in order to continue to receive funds.


Grants are funds awarded on the basis of need and generally do not have to be repaid. There are four types of federal student grants:

  • Federal Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants are need-based grants awarded to undergraduate students.
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grants are awarded to students who intend to teach in a elementary or secondary school that serves students from low-income families. If the service requirement is not fulfilled, it could turn into a loan.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants are awarded to students whose parents or guardians were members of the Armed Forces and died as a result of performing military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001. To qualify, a student must have been under 24 years of age or enrolled in college at the time of the parent or guardian’s death.

There are a variety of state-funded grants for minorities, disadvantaged students, those pursuing high-need fields of study, students with disabilities, and certain former members of the military.

Loans consist of money you borrow from either the government or a private lender. You are required to pay back the money you borrow, and the terms depend on the type of loan. When you take out a loan, you are charged interest, and often other fees, as well.

Work-Study is a program through your school that allows you to earn money during the school year while also gaining work experience, typically in part-time jobs.

Do I need to have a job in order to get a student loan?

Most federal student loans are not based on your income or credit score. You do not need to have a job or any employment history to take out a federal student loan on your own behalf.

The only exception is for Direct PLUS Loans. These are loans that are taken out by graduate or professional degree students and parents of dependent undergraduate students. One of the eligibility requirements for a Direct PLUS Loan is having a good credit score. Though this doesn’t necessarily mean that the borrower must have a job in order to qualify, it’s more likely that you are able to pay your existing bills on time if you have a job.

How do I apply for federal student loans, and when do I need to apply?


In order to apply for federal student aid, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form. There is no charge to fill out a FAFSA, and it is used to not only apply for federal student loans but is also used by many states and colleges to determine your eligibility for state and school aid. Some private student loan companies may also use the information in your FAFSA as part of their application process.

The FAFSA form becomes available each year on October 1, and deadlines for submission vary based on the program. For Federal student aid, you can apply between October 1 and June 30 of the school year; for the 2017 – ’18 year, for example, you can apply between October 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017.

For state-based student aid, you can find relevant deadlines at fafsa.gov. Similarly, college or career school aid deadlines can be determined by contacting the financial aid office of the school or by checking the school’s website.

Some other programs may also require that you file the FAFSA. Pell Grant eligibility and various private scholarships are determined only by your FAFSA. Therefore, it’s a good idea to complete your application as soon as is possible after it becomes available in January.

How much can I get in federal student loans each year?

Your maximum eligibility for Federal student loans depends on your year in college and whether you are listed as a dependent on anyone else’s federal tax return.

C1Q5 FedLoanMax_Chart

For first-year undergraduate students who were classified as dependents, the maximum direct loan you can take out is $5,500; no more than $3,500 of that amount may be in subsidized direct loans. Second-year undergraduates qualify for up to $6,500 in direct loans, of which no more than $4,500 may be in subsidized loans. Students in their third year and beyond qualify for up to $7,500 in direct loans, of which no more than $5,500 may be subsidized. For dependent undergraduates, the aggregate direct loan limit is $31,000.

If you are a dependent student whose parents were ineligible for a Direct PLUS Loan, you may be able to borrow up to the limit permitted by independent students.

For first-year undergraduate students who are not classified as dependents, the maximum direct loan you can take out is $9,500, and no more than $3,500 of that amount may be in subsidized direct loans. Second-year undergraduates qualify for up to $10,500 in direct loans, of which no more than $4,500 may be in subsidized loans. Students in their third year and beyond qualify for up to $12,500 in direct loans, of which no more than $5,500 may be subsidized. For independent undergraduates, the aggregate direct loan limit is $57,500.

Graduate and professional students can take up to $20,500 in direct loans per year, all of which is unsubsidized. The aggregate direct loan limit is $138,500,including all federal loans received for undergraduate study.

Undergraduate students qualify for up to $5,500 per year in Perkins Loans. The exact amount depends upon your financial need, the amount of other aid you receive, and the amount of money available for such funds at your school. Graduate students can qualify for up to $80,00 each year in Perkins Loans.

What is Cost of Attendance, and Why Does It Matter?

A school’s “cost of attendance” (COA) is the average cost to attend for a single year of school on a full-time basis. Cost of attendance includes tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation, and personal expenses.

Cost of attendance is pivotal in deciding your choice of school. The college will subtract your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) from cost of attendance to determine your need for financial aid – the higher the COA, the more aid you’ll be able to get to help pay for college.

Cost of attendance is set by the school and reflects the average cost – not necessarily your cost. For example, your travel costs may be lower than what’s reflected in the COA if you bicycle to class or take public transportation. Your food costs may be lower or higher based on your meal choices.

Each school is required by federal law to publish its COA, and since July 1, 2011, the Department of Education has been required to publish that information.

You can find the COA of every school at the US Department of Education’s College Scorecard.

Jay Fleischman

MEET THE EXPERT : Jay Fleischman

Jay S. Fleischman is a consumer protection attorney helping people with issues surrounding student loans and other debt problems. He is admitted to practice law in New York and California, and assists federal student loan borrowers nationwide.