Here's what to do when you can't get enough financial aid

You might feel extra anxious if your family’s income doesn’t qualify you for need-based aid and you can’t cover college costs out of pocket. But there's hope yet.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Volunteer Vinette Richards assists families and students filling out FAFSA forms in the library of New Rochelle High School in New Rochelle, New York (on January 26, 2014). The event, 'College Goal NY: FAFSA Completion Events for New York State Students,' is held for annually and assists over 100 New Rochelle High School seniors and their families.

College acceptance letters answer one question, but replace it with another: Can you afford it? You might feel extra anxious if your family’s income doesn’t qualify you for need-based aid and you can’t cover college costs out of pocket.

There’s hope yet. Even if you’re not eligible for aid based on your family’s earnings, there are other ways to get a great education without swimming in debt. Here’s how.

Fill out the FAFSA no matter how much your family earns

Colleges determine financial aid eligibility based on the results of your Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. Schools subtract your expected family contribution, or EFC, from their total costs to figure out how much aid you need.

Don’t skip the FAFSA if you believe your parents’ earnings disqualify you for aid. You could receive more help than expected thanks to factors like your parents’ age or the number of siblings you have. Also, filling out the FAFSA makes you eligible for grants and scholarships from colleges — some of which aren’t based on income.

“If you don’t qualify for federal Pell Grants or state grants, that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get any free money,” says Jessica Velasco, an independent education consultant at JLV College Counseling in Austin, Texas.

Submit your FAFSA as close to the date it opens as possible to have a shot at first-come, first-served funds like federal work-study. For the 2016-17 aid year, the FAFSA opened Jan. 1. According to new regulations, it will be available Oct. 1 for the following school year starting in fall 2016.

Spend two hours a week applying for scholarships

It’s easier said than done. But if you don’t get need-based financial aid, receiving money that’s awarded based on achievement is the next best thing. You won’t have to pay merit-based aid back, so private scholarships are useful for covering costs you’d otherwise have to borrow student loans for.

Velasco recommends spending a few hours a week searching for and applying to scholarships, even if they’re in small denominations of, say, $1,000. “That’s a pretty good amount of money for two hours of work,” she says.

Make a list of all your characteristics and favorite activities that might have an organization attached to it. Search for foundations or nonprofit organizations that give money to students who do community service, play a certain musical instrument, or are planning to pursue a particular course of study, for instance.

“That type of creativity can many times lead to scholarships that have nothing to do with the FAFSA,” says Kristin Bhaumik, assistant director for special programs at the University of Michigan’s office of financial aid.

As you search, steer clear of scholarship and financial aid scams. Warning signs include a fee to apply, a guarantee that your scholarship application will be successful, and requests for your bank account or credit card information.

Merely applying to schools will also make you eligible for merit scholarships they offer, but sometimes additional essays or applications are required to get them. Check each school’s financial aid website for scholarship opportunities.

Borrow student loans wisely

It’s a good rule to borrow at most what you expect to earn your first year out of school, even if that’s just an estimate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists annual wages for many occupations, which can help with your research. Many students take five or six years to graduate, so multiply the amount of loans you’ll take out freshman year by four, five or six to get a full picture of the debt you might need to take on.

Once you understand how much you’ll need to borrow, you can figure out which types of loans are best for your circumstances:

  • Maximize federal loans first, starting with subsidized loans if you qualify for them based on your financial need. They don’t accrue interest while you’re in school and during your grace period.
  • Move on to unsubsidized federal student loans next. These are available to families who aren’t eligible for need-based aid. You can also consider parent PLUS loans, but they come with upfront fees, high interest rates, and fewer repayment options than other federal loans.
  • Private student loans should generally be your last stop, as they’re the least flexible when it’s time to repay. They may also carry higher interest rates than federal loans. These are best for students who have borrowed up to their annual federal loan limit and still need help affording their degree.

College should be fun — and, oh yeah, educational — not a financial burden that you wish you’d planned for when you had the chance.

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @briannamcscribe. This article first appeared at NerdWallet.

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