Fall tuition bills are coming due for college students and their families. If you're struggling to pay, or worried about how you'll handle all of your expenses, here are a few strategies to consider.
If you haven't already submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (aka FAFSA), it's not too late. The FAFSA is a widely used form that colleges and federal and state governments review to figure out how much financial aid you can get.
As of this spring, only 56% of families with a student in or headed to college had completed the FAFSA for the upcoming academic year, according to a Sallie Mae survey of 2,006 parents and students. About a quarter of families never submit the form for a given year, data from previous years suggests.
It takes about an hour to fill out the FAFSA, according to Edvisors.com. Doing so could help you get any need-based federal, state, and college grant money that's still available, and make you eligible to take out federal student loans — which are cheaper and provide more borrower protections than private loans.
Reach out to your school's financial aid office directly. Every school has their own protocol for awarding or amending your financial aid package. You many need to file a formal appeal that requires writing a personal letter or submitting documentation that demonstrates how your financial situation has changed.
The college may be able to offer additional grant money or opportunities for work-study. Don't hesitate to ask about increasing the value of scholarships you've been awarded, either.
"College is a buyer's market, and most schools are not meeting their enrollment goal — so you can appeal an award even if you don't have extenuating circumstances," says Lynn O'Shaughnessy, author of "The College Solution."
If you can't negotiate a better package, you can request to be put on a payment plan that allows you to pay tuition in installments over the course of the year. While this won't cut down your costs, it can make them more manageable.
"The most important thing is to be patient," says Elaine Rubin, senior contributor and communications specialist at Edvisors. "For many financial aid offices, the start of the semester is their busiest time, but any little bit you can deduct from your overall costs will help."
While you're waiting back to hear about financial aid offers from your university, you can be proactive and hunt for outside scholarships. Sites including Edvisors, Fastweb, and Petersons have searchable databases of scholarships.
Also be sure to check your college's scholarship displacement policy. That's when a college uses your scholarship money from outside sources to reduce its financial aid package, essentially canceling out the financial gain of having won that scholarship.
"I think it's always worth it to apply for private scholarships," says Rubin. "It does take work, but it could be enough to fill in any financial aid gap you may have."
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