Make the most of aid opportunities: Billions of dollars are left on the table
By Matt Konrad
Last spring, more than 3.2 million students graduated from high school, and those students left nearly $3.6 billion in Pell Grant funds on the table, along with millions of dollars in SNAP benefits, private scholarships and other forms of college financial aid.
It’s a huge paradox: paying for college is a struggle, but millions of students are missing out on billions of dollars in free money (and potentially derailing their college dreams as a result). Here’s how to make sure you don’t lose out.
FAFSA: Free Application, Free Money
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year is the best way to get free money for college.
Despite this, nearly half of high school graduates never complete this crucial application. According to the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), 44% of seniors failed to complete the FAFSA in 2022, resulting in not receiving nearly a dollar of federal student aid. Worse, most states and many colleges as well base their financial aid packages on students’ FAFSA calculations — so failure to file has a cascading effect that hits students from low-income households the hardest.
NCAN estimates that “about 767,000 students in the high school class of 2022 who would be eligible for Pell Grants did not complete the FAFSA.” With a maximum Pell grant of $6,895 (and an average grant of $4,686), each of these students could have covered the average tuition of a semester or more of an in-state public college.
Just by submitting the form.
Of course, completing the FAFSA isn’t always easy.
If you don’t have a family history of college, you might assume you can’t afford college, and so applying for aid isn’t on your radar. Or maybe the school load combined with work, caregiving or other responsibilities makes it difficult to spare time. Even if you do if you’re planning to go to college and can spare the time to apply, shifting deadlines and difficult questions can derail even your best efforts—especially if your high school’s counseling office is underfunded and overwhelmed.
Despite these challenges, filling out the FAFSA is still the most important thing you can do to avoid missing out on free money. Fortunately, there’s good news on the horizon—a radically simplified form is set to roll out within the next two years, and several states will require you to complete the FAFSA for high school graduation (which means schools will give more time and resources to help. ) Here are three additional steps we recommend to give yourself the best chance .
- Designate one weekend to devote to the FAFSA and nothing else. In recent years, applications have opened on October 1. It is not clear if this will be the case in 2023, but the last one possible opening date is January 1st. Consider skipping the first weekend of 2024!
- Review and share the Form Your Future FAFSA Completion Guide, which includes resources for students, families, and those assisting with the process.
- Bookmark the FAFSA Help Center, monitored by live chat and phone experts who are on hand to help.
In addition to financial help: help make ends meet
Pell Grants, your college’s state aid, and financial aid can help bring your tuition bills within reach, but that’s only part of the cost of college—and like the FAFSA, there’s plenty of basic needs aid that isn’t claimed.
As NCAN reports, “Despite the expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamps”) benefits for college students during the COVID-19 pandemic, a staggering number of eligible students have not enrolled in the program … Thomas Hilliard and Bryce McKibben titled Closing the College SNAP Gap an estimated 69% of eligible students are not registered for SNAP, [thus] leaving billions of dollars on the table every year.
This report from Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Law outlines the problem: Most eligible students either don’t know about the program or assume they don’t qualify for aid, and the eligibility requirements are as follows. A Byzantine maze to follow (with often outdated information from pre-COVID documents.) And while we can’t solve all of these problems, we can suggest that if you’re a Pell Grant recipient, a full-time community college student, or a student from a low-income household, there’s a good option , to qualify for SNAP benefits while in school.
To find out for sure, check with your student life or financial aid office—in addition to programs like SNAP, they can refer you to state and local programs, emergency grant providers, and student-run mutual aid networks that can help with food and housing insecurity, transportation or broadband costs, and much more.
More Free Money: Private Scholarships
Every dollar counts when paying for college. And even if you’ve crushed out your FAFSA, paid off your school aid, and applied for full cost-of-living reimbursements, there’s one more opportunity you shouldn’t miss: the roughly $7 billion in private scholarships each year.
There are as many options and requirements for finding and applying for these private scholarships as there are scholarships, but there are a few things to keep in mind for all of them: stay organized, start early, and maximize your time. looking for the best matches for you, which may not always be the biggest names or the highest value. Applying for a $5,000 scholarship for your favorite pursuits is much more likely to pay off than a $25,000 scholarship open to any student in America.
Here are some more of our tried-and-true dos and don’ts, including one that should sound familiar: If a scholarship considers your financial need, the application will almost always ask for — you guessed it — your FAFSA information!
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