Four financial aid tips for college procrastinators

If you left financial aid to the last minute and you’re scrambling to cover this semester’s costs, you still have options.

Tony Dejak/AP/File
This March 5, 2013 file photo shows a student riding a bicycle on the campus of Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.

We all have bouts of procrastination, especially in college. Pulling an all-nighter to crank out a paper you’ve had weeks to work on is practically the definition of a college student.

If you left financial aid to the last minute and you’re scrambling to cover this semester’s costs, you still have options. Many colleges have already awarded scholarships, but certain grants may be on the table. And it’s not too late to borrow student loans.

Don’t wait any longer to figure out your financial aid — here’s what to do right now.

1. Submit the FAFSA if you haven’t already

You may have been told to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid more times than you can count. But there’s a reason everyone from your high school guidance counselor to your college financial aid officer is harping on you to fill out this form: It’s impossible to access most financial aid if you don’t.

The federal FAFSA deadline for the 2016-17 school year is June 30, 2017, which means you have time to apply for federal student loans and Pell Grants. Many state FAFSA deadlines for this school year have already passed, but there still may be time to qualify for financial aid in places including Mississippi, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, New York and Louisiana.

Even if you don’t qualify for federal or state grants, you need to submit the FAFSA to be eligible for many scholarships from third-party organizations. Those scholarships have varying deadlines throughout the year, so look for ones with deadlines you can meet.

2. Call your college financial aid office

Your college’s financial aid deadlines also may already have passed, but try calling its financial aid office and explaining your situation. There’s no guarantee that a school will be able to give you extra money, but it may have more authority to do so than you think.

“Institutional aid policies are set by the school,” says Abigail Seldin, vice president of innovation and product management for the nonprofit Educational Credit Management Corp. “That means the school has full discretion about how they spend their institutional aid.”

3. Consider private student loans

If you’re short on cash after borrowing the maximum amount of federal student loans you’re allowed this year, you may need to consider private loans.

Unlike federal loans, which come from the government, private student loans come from banks or credit unions. Undergraduates almost always need a co-signer for a private loan, because they don’t have enough credit history to qualify for one. A co-signer promises to pay your bill if you don’t; often, it’s a relative or friend who has good credit.

Your interest rate depends on the lender and your co-signer’s credit, so it could be higher or lower than the rate you’d get with a federal loan. But private student loans have fewer borrower protections than federal loans. With federal loans, you can pay a monthly amount that’s relative to your income, and you might qualify for loan forgiveness programs. You can’t typically do those things with private loans.

Before you choose a lender, compare private student loans  — either through an online marketplace like NerdWallet or by shopping around on your own — to find the lowest rate.

4. Get ahead of next year’s financial aid

Once you lock down enough money for this year’s college costs, look ahead so you don’t repeat the same frenzied cash scramble next year.

The FAFSA for the 2017-18 school year opens on Oct. 1, 2016. Mark that in your calendar now. The sooner you submit the form, the more likely you are to receive scholarships, grants and work-study opportunities.

You don’t have to curb your procrastination habit altogether — those all-nighters are quintessentially “college.” But when it comes to financial aid applications, it pays to finish early.

Teddy Nykiel is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: teddy@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @teddynykiel.

This story originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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