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How Scholarships Fill in the FAFSA Gap

Updated October 2019

The opening of the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) on October 1 each year marks a crucial time for students and their families. The results of the FAFSA have a major impact on how much aid students get—and that has a huge impact on where students enroll and which schools they can afford.

For many students, the aid that comes via the FAFSA will help offset the high cost of tuition at their dream school. But the reality is that, for far too many students, there will still be a FAFSA gap—a financial shortfall even after federal aid.

Increasingly, students and their families have turned to loans to help fill the gap between government aid and the full cost of college; during the 2017-18 academic year, the College Board reported that American college students and their parents borrowed $105.5 billion in student loans. The massive amount of borrowing and the subsequent student debt crisis continues to concern policymakers, higher education professionals and the individuals who are affected most: students and their loved ones.

Avoiding Student Loans Can Create Issues, Too

Students who want to avoid loan debt can also work while they’re in college. Unfortunately, long hours or multiple jobs mean less and less time to focus on school—leaving students struggling to meet academic standards even if their job helps them pay tuition. It can be a vicious circle, and often results in students dropping out.

One administrator lays out the issue to U.S. News:

“What we’ve determined is that, overwhelmingly, the primary reason [for dropping out] is financial,” says Mary Schmidt Campbell, president of Spelman College in Georgia, which she says recently took a “deep dive” into why students drop out. While paying for college is a significant factor, she points to academic struggles and personal issues – such as family or work obligations – as other compelling reasons for students to drop out.

It may seem like there’s nowhere else to turn. But scholarships and grants—”gift aid” funds that don’t need to be repaid—can help fill the FAFSA gap. With costs continuing to rise, it’s increasingly important that there are resources to help cover them, from the time a bill lands in a student’s inbox to when they actually make a payment.

Scholarships Made it Happen for Amanda

Amanda exemplifies the kind of student for whom scholarships became a saving grace. She fled domestic abuse as a teen only to find herself homeless with small children. Against the odds, Amanda completed her G.E.D. and enrolled in community college—but the financial struggle kept her on the edge of dropping out.

“I was searching for answers of how to break the cycle. I remembered the many times I tried and failed,” Amanda said. “Is it possible for someone with no money, employment, or support system to be successful in pursuing postsecondary education? I took a deep breath, sighed, and thought, ‘If anyone can do this, I can, and if I cannot do this, no one can.’”

Fortunately, Amanda’s research led her to the Scholarship America Dream Award. Earning that renewable scholarship helped her focus on her studies and put her financial stress behind her, and she earned her Bachelor of Science in Emergency Administration Management, with honors.

Graduation Has Major Benefits

For Amanda, and for all college graduates, that achievement has a huge impact on the course of their future lives. The benefits are many:

With a scholarship, a student’s life can change for the better, no matter what their college situation. A part-time student taking one course at a time may need to cover the cost of a specific class. A student who has received substantial aid from her institution may still face steep fees for class supplies that aren’t accounted for in her financial aid package. A returning adult student could make use of an award that’ll help with transportation costs. Each student may have a different need, but the goals are the same: to make a better future for themselves and their families.

At Scholarship America, we’re focused on student success—to build a better present, and to help them shape our future. The FAFSA is a vital source of financial aid. And scholarships are crucial to filling in the FAFSA gap and keeping talented students from falling through the cracks.

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