Getting a great financial aid package awarded can involve more than just filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You may not receive some scholarships and grants automatically. Here are a few of the best strategies for maximizing financial aid award packages, whether you’re applying for the first time or for the ninth.
Applying early is one of the most important things you can do. While the federal Pell Grant is awarded completely on financial need and doesn’t have its own deadline, this grant won’t cover the costs of your entire education. The earlier you submit your FAFSA and the necessary paperwork, the better your chances are for being awarded other funds that can run out: Some state and university grants have a yearly budget, and when those funds run out, late applicants lose out.
Pay attention to both school and state scholarship deadlines. Missing a deadline is the easiest way to miss out on free financial awards.
One of the biggest secrets to financial aid is that what you are offered in your award letter is not necessarily your final offer. If you are awarded more financial aid at another school, contact your financial aid office to ask if there’s any more money available to you. Perhaps your school has more money available in university grants, which they might want to award to retain students. This is more likely at a private school rather than at a public one, which typically has limited funds.
Network to Find Scholarships
One of the best ways to discover scholarships is to network with other people who are also on the hunt for scholarships. Seem counterintuitive? Maybe not. Form a team of parents, fellow students, school counselors, etc., to network with to find new scholarships. Talk with friends who’ve recently been awarded scholarships. Find out the strategies they used. One scholarship may not fit your qualifications but might fit someone else’s in your group. Share your knowledge with one another.
If you haven’t attended school for a while, be sure to inquire with your major’s office (for major-specific scholarships and work opportunities) as well as the returning student’s office (for special scholarships for nontraditional students).
Unfortunately, there are scholarship scams out there, so it might be a good idea to ask a financial aid counselor at your college for help in determining whether the scholarship you’re applying for is legit.
Consider the Impact of Private Scholarships
Sometimes private scholarships can cancel out scholarships or grants awarded to you by your college. When comparing financial aid packages, contact schools you’re considering attending to see who deducts private scholarships from the school scholarships you receive. Don’t cost yourself thousands in the long run.
Request a Professional Judgment
There are a number of reasons you can appeal your financial aid award letter and request that your financial aid officer perform a professional judgment on your situation and reconsider your estimated family contribution (EFC). Check with your school to see if any of these circumstances warrant a reduced EFC:
- Change in income
- Change in marital status
- Medical expenses
- Parent in college
- Student loan repayment
If you’ve quit your full-time job to return to college, your income may not be as high as what it was on the tax data submitted for your FAFSA. Filling out a special circumstances form, available from your college’s financial aid office, might help you get awarded grants and scholarships based on your revised income. Professional judgments can take some time to be reviewed, so be sure to submit them well before the school year starts so you can make an informed decision on whether or not you can afford your education costs or if you’ll need to revise your plans.
Borrow Private Loans When It Makes Sense
If you need to borrow money as part of your financial aid, direct federal student loans are still the best option, but they have a yearly cap on how much you can borrow. If you need additional funds, private loans and PLUS loans could be an option for you. Not long ago, private student loans had variable rates and were, generally speaking, not as attractive as federal student loans. But now, federal PLUS loans may have higher interest rates than private loans. Also, not all students will qualify for PLUS loans. So, if you have great credit and can afford it, consider borrowing a private loan rather than going for a PLUS option.
Before you decide what’s right for you, keep in mind that PLUS loans might be the better option, regardless of interest rate: If you work in a public service profession, you could qualify for loan forgiveness after 10 years of payments. If you have federal student loans, you may appreciate the built-in cushion of being able to take advantage of forbearance or payment deferment in the future; this may not be an option with a private loan.
What are your strategies for financial aid success? Let’s start a conversation with other Zing readers in the comments below!
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