As you look for scholarships, financial aid and the perfect college fit, there are a lot of familiar resources. These include scholarship search engines, the federal student aid database and high school and college websites. But one useful source that plenty of students never think about is their state's office of higher education.
Checking out the office in your home state, as well as the states where you might go to college, should be part of your summer to-do list. Resources and the office's name vary by state. You can start with this list.
Wherever you go, look for links to student and family resources. Once you find those, focus on the following five valuable options.
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1. Online guidance and planning tools: While websites differ, just about every state features online tools that can help you plan and pay for college. One of the best is Kentucky's KnowHow2GoKY site, which offers education planning advice for all ages.
The Iowa College Student Aid Commission's I Have A Plan site provides a wide view of everything from career exploration and test prep to financial aid and postgraduate activities.
Even if your state doesn't have a dedicated planning tool, it will likely have a student resource page, like this one from Massachusetts, where you can get started.
2. In-person and offline events: One advantage of these offices' local focus is that they can offer residents more face-to-face opportunities to connect and learn. The Minnesota Office of Higher Education will soon be supplementing its online tool set with "College Knowledge Month," a series of college planning and application events for high school seniors across the state.
The Maryland Higher Education Commission conducts monthly financial aid presentations at high schools and colleges. And higher education offices across the nation are often closely involved with College Goal Sunday efforts in January and February.
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3. Loan, grant and savings information: Most states offer education loans and grants to qualified students. These funds are usually managed by the higher education office, as are the states' college savings plans, known as 529 accounts. Minnesota provides a straightforward 529 website for students and parents, as well as offers a detailed look at the state's low interest rate SELF Loan program.
Washington's thorough state site covers all things 529 and features a wide array of grants and loans under the "Opportunity Pathways" banner.
4. Scholarship searches and applications: Washington also offers a unique resource called The WashBoard, which allows resident students to find scholarships from public and private-sector providers across the state. While this is the most ambitious search we've found, other states do feature online applications for government-funded programs or listings of statewide scholarships.
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5. Resources for military and veteran students: The U.S. Armed Forces provides a wide array of educational benefits to active-duty servicemen and women, reservists and veterans. But those benefits often come with confusing paperwork, restrictions or deadlines.
If you're a veteran or currently serving, your state higher education office can help you make sense of it all. Some states, like North Carolina and Massachusetts, have easy-to-find resources on their websites. If you can't find the information you need, reach out to your state's office.
No matter what your needs are, we recommend you contact state higher education offices with questions. Many are now active on social media, meaning a tweet, a Facebook message or an email can help you learn what you need to from these often-overlooked resources.
Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.