A college education is a dream for many across the country. Some students, though, have parents whose relatively higher income disqualifies them from federal or state aid. Sadly, they still can’t afford the skyrocketing cost of a university education even after taking out student loans. For the most part, these students are out of luck if they didn’t perform well enough in high school to earn scholarships.

For those who are slightly worse off — for instance, whose parents have been laid off from work or aren’t able to earn a living because of a disability — there are options. Here’s how to get financial aid for college:

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Filling out the FAFSA

The first step for any aspiring college student is to work with your parents to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA. This application will run your parents’ income and assets through a series of complex formulas to come up with a number known as your EFC, or expected family contribution. The EFC helps to calculate your eligibility for federal student aid, such as the Pell Grant.

The EFC also helps determine your eligibility for grants and scholarships from the university (rather than the federal or state government). These grants and scholarships are generally funded by donations from generous alumnae or local corporations and philanthropists.

How to Get Financial Aid and Keep It

Without these grants and scholarships, a student with an EFC that's at or near zero dollars will find it almost impossible to attend college. In my home state of Kentucky, different universities offer a range of financial assistance. Northern Kentucky University has the Northern Difference Grant. Meanwhile, Murray State University offers the Racer Promise Tuition Program. The University of Louisville also has its own grants, including need-based ones.

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With the exception of scholarships, there aren’t any specific academic requirements to qualify for them. However, you need to meet certain academic benchmarks to keep these benefits once you receive them.

The Northern Difference Grant, for example, requires that I maintain a 2.5 grade-point average and full-time status.

I also have to regularly meet with an adviser in the TRIO office to make sure that I’m maintaining sufficient academic progress and that all my needs are met. Other universities require that you live either in-state or in specific counties near the school.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

These grants are specifically designed to help students and families to break out of the poverty cycle. According to the Urban Institute, very few young adults who never experienced poverty as children are poor in their twenties and thirties, while those who have tend to continue to experience poverty.

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Studies have linked a college education with financial stability. If a person who has grown up poor can attend college, he or she will have the power to break the cycle of poverty.

I'm fortunate to have been awarded the Northern Difference Grant at Northern Kentucky University. It pays for my housing, meal plan, books, and the part of my tuition that my other grants don't cover. I have a calculated EFC of zero dollars. Plus, I didn’t particularly excel in high school, and I didn’t get an outstanding score on my ACT or SAT. But because of this program, I’ve been able to attend college.