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What to Do if Financial Aid Is Not Enough?

So, you have completed your FAFSA and CSS Profile, applied for merit scholarships, and were accepted by your dream college! Awesome news, right? But what if you receive your financial aid award letter and your financial aid is not enough?

In the financial aid world, there is even a term for when financial aid and a student’s family contribution do not cover the entire cost-of-attendance: a “gap.” If you need additional financial assistance with college costs, we have some ideas that might help.

What should students do if financial aid is not enough?

Luckily, there are some ways that students can “fill” that financial aid gap so that they can pay for college. Here are some of the top ways that students can pay for college if financial aid is not enough:

Keep on reading to learn more about how these options can help you pay for college!

Apply for scholarships

Scholarships are essentially free money for students. There are millions of dollars of private scholarship funds available for students! This is free money that you do not have to pay back, so scholarships are an obvious first step to filling your financial aid gap. There are scholarships for students of almost every interest, demographic, and location.

To get started, check out our free scholarship search tool or Scholarship Directory to search for scholarships that are a good fit for you. You should continue to apply for scholarships throughout the year for every year that you are in school, as there are private scholarships with deadlines every month!

Appeal for more financial aid

It is likely that your college or university has an appeals process for students to request additional financial aid. This can come in the form of merit or need-based scholarships. If you want to appeal for more financial aid, you should immediately get in touch with the financial aid office at the college in question to ask about what the appeals process looks like.

Here’s how the University of Michigan discusses their financial aid appeal process:

Some students and their families experience unique circumstances that affect the ability to pay college costs. If your financial circumstances change, contact us as soon as possible. You may request a re-evaluation of your aid or an appeal of a financial aid policy or decision. Our ability to provide additional assistance depends on the circumstances, a student’s dependency status, when you contact us, whether and when you are able to provide documentation of your circumstances, and whether funds are available.

Please note: Appeals of financial aid eligibility, including budget re-evaluations, must be submitted at least three weeks prior to the end of the semester to allow time for approval and aid disbursement.

If you experience a loss of income due to COVID-19, please contact us to explore your options.

As you can see, the University of Michigan appeals process is focused on supporting students whose financial situation has changed in a significant way since they applied to the University. This can include a parent losing a job, unexpected medical expenses, or other financial challenges. Many colleges will also seek to support students who have been impacted by COVID-19.

If you have received strong merit scholarship opportunities from other colleges, you may be able to also use this as a way to appeal for more merit scholarship money.

Students interested should learn more about how to negotiate their financial aid through the appeals process!

Federal Student Loans

In your financial aid package you might notice student loans as a part of your award package. Here’s what this looks like at the University of Wisconsin for the 2023-2024 school year:

Chart listing the total amount of federal student loans a student can take out per semester at the University of Wisconsin

These federal student loans are better than other student loans because they have more favorable interest rates, repayment plans, and options for loan forgiveness. Direct Subsidized and Direct Unsubsidized are the most common types of federal student loans that you will find. Students can find a complete list of federal student loans on the Federal Student Aid website.

Definitely take some time to explore the federal student loan options that you are eligible for. If you have any questions, contact the college’s financial aid office to get more information.

Take a Gap Year 

Many colleges will allow students to take a “gap year” before they begin their freshman year. A gap year can enable students to get a full time job to save money for their college education. This can be a solid option if the financial gap is relatively small.

Gap years will also provide students with other benefits:

  • Travel and experience a new culture
  • Learn new skills
  • Discover a new passion

Generally, students will have to request a gap year, which may also be referred to as deferring enrollment. You should be sure to get in touch with your college’s admissions office if you are interested in this option. At most colleges, the admissions office will want to see that you have a specific, constructive plan for your gap year.

Consider more affordable options

While this is technically not a way to receive more money to pay for college, it can help bring the overall cost down. Chances are that some of your financial aid packages are more generous than others or are for colleges that are more affordable (such as in-state public institutions).

You should consider your ROE (return on education) and consider the cost of attending a specific college, the student loan debt that you would incur, and the starting salary for graduates. Your financial aid award letter will help you understand cost and debt, while the College Scorecard is a great tool to learn more about average earnings.

Income Share Agreements

Income Share Agreements are a newer college financing option available to students. An Income Share Agreement or ISA is a contract that says that students will receive an amount of money to pay for college, but they promise to pay back a future portion of their salary. One of the downsides of ISAs is that they are relatively limited in availability. They may not be available to students at specific colleges or studying specific majors.

Private Student Loans

Once you have exhausted all of the above options, including federal student loans, you can consider private student loans. The best way to research private student loans is through a private student loan marketplace which will allow you to compare different private student loans. We always recommend that students shop around and explore their different student loan options.

Bottom line for students

Unexpected financial situations and “gaps” can be very stressful for students to deal with. We know that you have worked hard and hope that these steps will help you find an excellent college option that will allow you to thrive and graduate with minimal debt. Reach out early and often to your financial aid office to ask for help when you need it–that’s what they’re there for!

Frequently asked questions about what to do is financial aid is not enough

If I qualified for scholarships and student loans should I accept both?

You should accept financial aid in this order:
  • Free money (ex: scholarships, grants)
  • Earned money (ex: work-study) 
  • Borrowed money (ex: federal student loans) 

Therefore, if you qualify for both scholarships and federal student loans, you should begin by accepting your scholarship as this is “free money” that will not need to be paid back later. Then, if you still have remaining costs you should take out student loans if necessary! 

How much money can I borrow in federal student loans?

The amount of money you are able to borrow in federal student loans depends on the loan type and if you are an undergraduate or graduate student. 

For direct subsidized loans and direct unsubsidized loans, there are limits on the amount you can borrow each academic year which is clearly stated in your financial aid package. In addition, there is a maximum amount of direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans you can receive for your undergraduate and graduate study. 

What if I need more student loans?

If after completing your FAFSA and after choosing to accept your Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans you still find that you need more student loans, you can reach out to your school’s financial aid office to determine if you are eligible for additional aid.