With college classes starting soon, ideally you’ve made all your payments and are ready to settle in. But if you’re still looking for financial aid to help cover your tuition, you’ll have to move fast. Here are six strategies recommended by people who specialize in college admissions.
1. Contact your school’s financial aid office
Call your school today to discuss your options with a financial aid officer, who can lay out funding options or direct you to the school’s payment plan, if available.
“They want the student, they’re expecting the student, they have the deposit, they’re holding a dorm for them, so they have a huge incentive to work things out for the student,” says Donald Heller, provost and vice president of academic affairs at the University of San Francisco.
Confusion around borrowing money and questions about how to finance a degree can scare people off, says Ofelia Morales, director of financial aid at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
“Why not come to the people who understand it and can help guide you?” she says.
2. Submit a student-aid application
If you haven’t already, fill out and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which is used by the federal government, states and schools to determine what kind of aid might be available to you.
Since you’re submitting it close to the start of the fall classes, you may have missed out on certain grants, scholarships or need-based aid, but federal loan options are still available. The student aid award letter you receive from filing the FAFSA will detail what federal loans you may qualify for. The sooner you apply, the better the chances that you’ll receive any aid that’s on the table. Let your school’s financial aid office know that you have submitted the FAFSA and keep in touch once your award letter arrives.
3. Appeal your financial aid offer
If your family’s finances have taken a hit since you received a financial aid award, let your school know, since you could be eligible for more aid.
“They should be honest,” says Lisa Sohmer, an independent college consultant in Los Angeles. “They should say, this is what happened — ‘my mother left her job’ or ‘the family relocated’ or ‘my sibling had a health crisis’ — or whatever it is that caused the sudden inability to pay the bill. Find out if there’s anything the financial aid office can do to help.”
4. Find scholarships
Look for scholarships with deadlines that haven’t passed, or ask the financial aid office if your school has scholarships that haven’t yet been awarded. Occasionally, a scholarship will remain open because an applicant has yet to meet the criteria, Heller says. You can find scholarships and deadlines at the U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop scholarship finder.
5. Consider private student loans
Federal subsidized and unsubsidized student loans come with borrower protections and income-driven repayment options that private loans don’t offer, so the federal options should be exhausted first.
Private loans usually require a co-signer and typically carry higher interest rates than federal subsidized loans, but the private-loan option may be necessary to close a funding gap. You can borrow private loans from banks, credit unions and online lenders. College admissions experts advise to borrow no more in student loans over the course of getting your degree than you anticipate making in your first year’s salary.
6. Plan long-term options
If you’re still left with a money gap after trying other options, consider deferring your start date for a term or a year to maximize your financial aid. To decide if this will help your financial situation, find out what you may have been eligible for had you submitted a FAFSA on time.
“Ask ‘What would my aid package look like if I did this earlier?’ and ‘Would it be possible for me to do that for next year?’” says Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators in Washington, D.C.
But those who work in college admissions say you also need to think beyond last-minute funding and consider whether your school is affordable in the long run.
“Financial aid are presented as one-year deals, so students tend to think of them as one-year problems,” says Bart Grachan, interim associate dean for progress and completion at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York. “So if they have cobbled all kinds of resources — ‘I have this emergency funding, this local scholarship, grandma kicked in $2,000’ — they need to multiply out the next four years and ask themselves, is that sustainable?”
Anna Helhoski is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski