Having a FAFSA freakout? Don’t worry, experts say.
Increasingly, families can complete their forms for the 2024-25 academic year without delays. But if you’re still worried about roadblocks or whether the change in the financial aid formula will net you enough money for school, there are other non-FAFSA related avenues to explore.
Keep in mind that students have to fill out the form – which has been streamlined compared with past years – if they want federal financial aid in the form of Pell Grants or government student loans. Financial aid experts advise all students to complete the FAFSA even if they’re unsure if they’ll receive aid.
That said, here’s where you can look for money or what you should know.
Before heading down the road of alternatives, FAFSA remains the top option for securing financial aid, experts say.
“The reason we think of FAFSA for financial aid is that Pell Grants and federal loans are the backbone,” said Bill DeBaun, nonprofit advocate National College Attainment Network’s senior director of data and strategic initiatives.
The U.S. Department of Education awards more than $120 billion a year in grants, work-study funds, and low-interest loans to around 13 million students. Federal loans offer better consumer protections, including flexible payment options and potential forgiveness.
The average amount of aid for a full-time equivalent undergraduate totaled $15,480 in 2022-2023, according to the nonprofit College Board, which promotes college readiness.
FAFSA is “the most important step in the financial aid application process and should not be skipped by any student graduating from high school,” said Bethany Hubert, a financial aid specialist for Going Merry by Earnest. “Skipping the FAFSA could mean leaving financial aid on the table.”
What are alternatives to FAFSA?
If you’re frustrated and worried after waiting patiently for your financial aid award letter you won’t have enough or can’t even apply to FAFSA, here are some options you can explore to provide backup, experts say.
◾ CSS Profile: a financial aid application used by some colleges and universities to award institutional aid. This is not a substitute for the FAFSA, and filing the CSS profile will not make a student eligible for federal or state financial aid.
◾ Alternative State Aid Applications: Some students who aren’t eligible for FAFSA due to immigration status should check their state for alternative aid applications. Illinois, for example, offers the Alternative Application for Illinois Financial Aid, which is open to undocumented students. Virginia opens its alternative state aid application to Virginians who are nonimmigrants, undocumented, have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, or are otherwise ineligible to file the FAFSA and would like to be considered for state financial aid.
◾ Scholarships and grants: Schools and private organizations offer their own funding for scholarships and grants, based on needs or merit. Many, but not all, may require FAFSA. The trick is finding them. Luckily, there are many websites to help including Scholly, founded by Christopher Gray who landed himself $1.3 million in scholarships and got a deal on Shark Tank for his company. Others include Going Merry, FastWeb and BigFuture.
◾ Financial aid counselors: They can offer a wealth of information, not just to navigate FAFSA or school admissions processes. They also know about little-known scholarships and grants; have important contacts they can tap for information and can help you find more aid. “It’s never too early to establish a relationship with the financial aid office,” said Patti Kohler, vice president of financial aid at Western Governors University. “They can help navigate and alleviate general anxiety to help get enough funding through to graduation.”
◾ Employer: Your employer may offer money towards your education. The IRS allows companies to provide up to $5,250 annually tax-free per employee for education.
◾ Private student loans: This option is one most experts will tell you to keep as a last resort because you benefit from low federal interest rates, attractive federal repayment plans, and other borrower protections. If you're considering these, you must shop around and fully understand your terms.
◾ Reconsider your plans: Reexamine your college list to ensure there’s a mix of different-priced schools and consider the costs and benefits of each. “I firmly believe in informed decisions,” said Bob Collins, senior advisor for the Office of the President & Vice President of Talent Finance at Western Governors University. The Department of Education’s “College Scorecard is really important to look at. It has consumer information and outcomes of people who attended that college. It’s user-friendly, and if you poke around, you can find the average cost of attendance, the median debt of those students who graduated with federal student loans and median earnings by program of study. Look at the cost of a particular institution and know what to expect.”
You also can earn and learn. “You don't have to quit to go back to school,” Collins said. “You can do distance education online.”
Lastly, college may turn out not to be the most cost-effective option, and that’s OK too, Collins said. There are also non-degree technical programs, apprenticeships and internships. Many of them are low cost or can be paid with workforce development funds and grants.
Medora Lee is a money, markets and personal finance reporter at USA TODAY. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: FAFSA's soft launch was messy. Here are other aid options to try