By Cassidy Horton
The sticker shock of college tuition is enough to send anyone searching for every cent of available financial aid. That’s why it’s important to develop a strategy for maximizing the aid on your financial aid award letter, no matter how high or low your household income may be. Do it right, and you can lower your out-of-pocket costs and reduce your overall student debt.
To that end, here are five tips for maximizing your financial aid award.
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One underrated way of maximizing your financial aid award is completing a mission-critical task every year: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Some families never fill out the FAFSA despite needing help with college costs.
But it’s not enough to just submit your application. Timing may be a factor too. Applying soon after the Oct. 1 availability date may improve your chances of getting more financial aid.
By submitting your FAFSA application, you may be eligible for the following forms of financial assistance:
Completing the FAFSA is also a prerequisite for many scholarship opportunities. Not filling it out could exclude you from even more money.
Even if you think your income is too high to receive a financial aid package, it’s still worth completing the FAFSA. There are no guarantees, but you may have better odds of getting a better financial aid award letter. National Center for Education Statistics data from 2019–2020 found 85.4% of full-time undergraduate students who completed the FAFSA were awarded financial aid.
So, even if you think you’re not eligible for aid, let your financial aid award letter be the one to tell you no. Don’t shortchange yourself on opportunities by not applying at all.
One of the best ways to maximize your financial aid package is to search for scholarships. Scholarships are a form of financial aid that does not need to be repaid, making them an ideal way to reduce the amount of money you need to borrow to pay for college.
Some scholarships are awarded based on academic merit, while others are based on financial need. There are also scholarships available for specific populations of students, such as women, minority groups, single parents and veterans. Be sure to research the different types of scholarships to find ones you may be eligible for.
Here are some places to look for scholarships:
Read the eligibility requirements carefully and submit your scholarship application before the deadline. You may need to write an essay or provide other documentation as part of your application, so give yourself plenty of time to complete the application.
Transposing numbers, not using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, not reading instructions and definitions carefully — these are all common mistakes that could mean less money in the total aid you are awarded.
To ensure this doesn’t happen to you, review your FAFSA and CSS profiles to confirm you reported all of your information correctly. And if you catch an error after submitting, there’s still hope: Simply log in to the Federal Student Aid website with your FSA ID and explore your options under “Reviewing and Correcting Your FAFSA Form.”
Completing the FAFSA can be challenging. Don’t feel bad if you make a mistake that results in a disappointing financial aid award letter. Correct your error and consider following up with the financial aid office at your school of choice if you think the mistake may have affected your financial aid amount. (See more on that in the next tip!)
Sometimes, things change between the time you submit your FAFSA and the time you receive your financial aid award letter. If any of the following happens to you, you have the option to appeal the decision.
To appeal your award letter, you’ll need to contact the financial aid office at your desired school. They’ll be able to determine if your situation warrants an appeal, but keep the following tips in mind:
Remember, appealing your financial aid award letter is not a guarantee that your award will be increased. However, if you have a legitimate reason to appeal, it’s worth pursuing. You may be able to receive additional financial aid that can help you achieve your educational goals.
It’s also worth noting that you should only borrow what you need. Any loans you receive now will have to be repaid later, so be responsible about minimizing what you borrow. And if you have money left over after paying tuition, use that cash for educational expenses like books and fees.
Even with scholarships and grants, it’s often a stretch that your financial aid package will cover college tuition without going into debt. To avoid deferring your dream of earning a college degree, it’s always an option to consider more affordable colleges.
While public colleges generally have lower tuition rates compared to private institutions, private schools may offer more generous financial aid packages to offset the higher tuition costs, making them more affordable for some students.
Online colleges can also offer a viable option for nontraditional students, as they may have fewer direct expenses like the cost of living on campus and costs for commuting to and from classes that are associated with attending brick-and-mortar schools. University of Phoenix (UOPX), for example, offers fixed tuition rates and scholarship opportunities, making it easier to budget and plan for the cost of education.
There are other ways to make your financial aid go further. For example, you can:
1. Take the maximum number of courses or credits allowed.
2. Create the right environment for success. (You want to get the best grades possible and avoid having to retake — and pay again for — a class.)
3. Seek tuition assistance from your employer.
Going to college is exciting and empowering. Understanding how to get the most bang for your buck (through scholarships, financial aid and even the college you select) makes the whole experience that much more rewarding.
UOPX is committed to removing barriers to higher education. To accomplish this, the University offers a variety of ways to save both time and money on a degree.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cassidy Horton is an academic advisor turned finance writer who’s passionate about helping people find financial freedom. With an MBA and a bachelor’s in public relations, she’s had the pleasure of working with top finance brands like Forbes Advisor and PayPal. She’s also the founder of Money Hungry Freelancers, a platform dedicated to helping freelancers ditch their financial stress. In her spare time, you can find Horton hiking in the Pacific Northwest and cuddling her two cats.
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