Make the Most of Aid Opportunities: Billions of Dollars Are Left on the Table
By Matt Konrad
More than 3.2 million students graduated from high school last spring—and those students left almost $3.6 billion in Pell Grant funds on the table, along with millions of dollars in SNAP benefits, private scholarships and other forms of college financial aid.
It’s a massive paradox: paying for college is a struggle, but millions of students are missing out on billions of dollars in free money (and potentially derailing their college dreams as a result). Here’s how to make sure you’re not losing out.
The FAFSA: Free Application, Free Money
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year is the single best way to get free money for college.
Despite this fact, nearly half of graduating high school seniors never complete this vital application. According to the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), 44% of seniors failed to complete a FAFSA in 2022, leaving them unable to access a single dollar of federal student assistance. Worse, most states and many colleges also base their financial aid packages on students’ FAFSA calculations—so a failure to submit the form has a cascading effect that hits students from low-income households the hardest.
NCAN estimates that “about 767,000 students from the high school class of 2022 who would be eligible for Pell Grants did not complete the FAFSA.” With a maximum Pell Grant of $6,895 (and an average grant of $4,686), each of those students could have covered the average tuition for a semester or more of in-state public college.
Just by submitting a form.
Of course, getting to FAFSA completion isn’t always easy.
If your family doesn’t have a history of going to college, you might assume that you won’t be able to afford higher education, and so applying for aid isn’t on your radar. Or maybe the burden of school combined with work, caregiving or other obligations makes it difficult to carve out the time. Even if you do plan to pursue college and you can make time to apply, shifting deadlines and complex questions can derail even the best efforts—especially if your high school’s guidance office is underfunded and overburdened.
Despite these challenges, though, completing your FAFSA is the single most important thing you can do to avoid missing out on free money. Fortunately, there’s some good news on the horizon—a radically simplified form is set to roll out over the next two years, and a number of states are requiring FAFSA completion for high school graduation (which means schools providing more time and resources to help.) Here are three additional steps we recommend to give yourself the best chances:
- Set aside one weekend to devote to the FAFSA and nothing else. In recent years, applications have opened on October 1. It’s not clear if that will be the case in 2023, but the latest possible opening date is January 1. Consider setting aside the first weekend of 2024!
- Check out and share the Form Your Future FAFSA Completion Guide, which has resources for students, families and those providing assistance as you work through the process.
- Bookmark the FAFSA Help Center, which is monitored by live chat and phone experts who are there to help.
Beyond Financial Aid: Help Making Ends Meet
Pell Grants, state assistance and financial aid from your college can help put your tuition bills within reach, but that’s only part of the cost of college—and, just as with the FAFSA, there’s plenty of basic needs assistance going unclaimed.
As NCAN reports, “Despite the expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or ‘food stamps’) benefits for college students during the COVID-19 pandemic, a staggering number of students that qualify are not signed up for the program … A report by Thomas Hilliard and Bryce McKibben titled Closing the College SNAP Gap estimates that 69% of eligible students are not signed up for SNAP, [thus] leaving billions of dollars on the table each year.”
That report, from the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, outlines the problem: the vast majority of eligible students either don’t know about the program or assume they don’t qualify for aid, and the eligibility requirements are a Byzantine maze to follow (with often outdated information from pre-COVID documents.) And while we can’t snap our fingers and fix all of these issues, we can advise that if you’re a Pell Grant recipient, a full-time community college student or a student from a low-income household, there’s a good chance you qualify for SNAP benefits while in school.
To find out for sure, consult with your student life or financial aid office—in addition to programs like SNAP, they may be able to point you toward state and local programs, emergency grant providers and student-led mutual aid networks that can help with food and housing insecurity, transportation or broadband costs and more.
More Free Money: Private Scholarships
When it comes to paying for college, every dollar counts. And even if you’ve crushed your FAFSA, maxxed out your aid from school and claimed every cost-of-living benefit, there’s another option out there that shouldn’t be missed: approximately $7 billion in private scholarships, each and every year.
When it comes to finding and applying for those private scholarships, there are as many different options and requirements as there are scholarship awards, but there are a few things to keep in mind for all of them: stay organized, start early and maximize your time by seeking out the best fits for you, which might not always be the biggest names or the highest value. Applying for a $5,000 scholarship geared toward your favorite activity is a lot more likely to pay off than a $25,000 scholarship open to every student in America.
Here are some more of our tried-and-true do’s and don’ts, including one that should sound familiar: if a scholarship takes your financial need into account, the application will almost always ask for—you guessed it—your FAFSA information!