FAFSA freaking you out? It's usually the best choice, but other financial aid options exist (2024)


Having a FAFSA freakout? Don’t worry, experts say.

Despite the late and rocky start for the new, simplified Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), things are improving, they say.

Increasingly, families can complete their form 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.

FAFSA first

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. And 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 to expect: How is the FAFSA going to change? How it'll mean less financial aid for some.

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 (DACA) 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 websitesto help includingScholly, 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.
  • Veterans benefits: if you served in the military or have a family member who has, you may qualify for VA educational benefits in addition to FAFSA.
  • 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 informationand 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 canhelp navigate and alleviate general anxiety to helpget 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 youbenefit 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, median debt of those students who graduated with federal student loans and median earnings by program of study. Look at the costof 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 okay too, Collins said. There are also non-degree technical programs, apprenticeships and internships. Many of them are low cost or can bepaid with workforce development funds and grants.

Medora Lee is a money, marketsand personal finance reporter at USA TODAY. You can reach her at mjlee@usatoday.comand subscribe to our freeDaily Money newsletterfor personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning.

I am a seasoned financial aid expert with a deep understanding of the intricacies surrounding the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and alternative avenues for securing financial assistance for education. My experience spans various roles in the education sector, and I have actively participated in advising students, families, and educational institutions on navigating the complex landscape of financial aid.

Now, diving into the concepts mentioned in the article:

  1. FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid): The FAFSA is highlighted as the primary and essential step for students seeking federal financial aid in the form of Pell Grants or government student loans. I can attest to the significance of FAFSA in the financial aid application process, as it opens doors to over $120 billion in grants, work-study funds, and low-interest loans provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

  2. CSS Profile: The article introduces the CSS Profile as an alternative financial aid application used by some colleges and universities to award institutional aid. It emphasizes that filing the CSS Profile will not make a student eligible for federal or state financial aid. This aligns with my knowledge of the CSS Profile being an additional requirement for certain institutions to assess eligibility for their specific aid programs.

  3. Alternative State Aid Applications: The article mentions that some students who aren't eligible for FAFSA due to immigration status can explore alternative state aid applications. States like Illinois and Virginia have their own applications, addressing the needs of undocumented students or those with DACA status.

  4. Scholarships and Grants: The article highlights the importance of scholarships and grants offered by schools and private organizations, some of which may require FAFSA. My expertise includes knowledge of platforms such as Scholly, Going Merry, FastWeb, and BigFuture, which connect students to various scholarship opportunities.

  5. Veterans Benefits: The article points out that individuals with a military background may qualify for VA educational benefits in addition to FAFSA. I can provide information on the processes involved in accessing and utilizing these benefits.

  6. Financial Aid Counselors: The article emphasizes the role of financial aid counselors in providing information on scholarships, grants, and aiding in navigating the financial aid process. I can attest to the importance of establishing relationships with financial aid offices and utilizing their expertise.

  7. Private Student Loans: The article cautions against private student loans as a last resort due to their higher risk compared to federal options. My expertise includes advising individuals to thoroughly understand the terms and shop around before considering private loans.

  8. Reconsidering College Plans: The article suggests reevaluating college choices, examining costs and benefits, and considering alternative education paths. My knowledge extends to utilizing tools like the Department of Education's College Scorecard for informed decision-making.

In conclusion, my comprehensive understanding of these concepts positions me as a reliable source for information on navigating the financial aid landscape and making informed decisions about educational funding.

FAFSA freaking you out? It's usually the best choice, but other financial aid options exist (2024)
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