Many families assume they can apply for financial aid or scholarship money only before the start of a student’s freshman year in college. After that, there’s no point, they presume.
But such thinking is a mistake — and one that could leave significant money on the table.
529 plans: Knowing the rules
In reality, students can apply for financial aid not only as high-school seniors but also every year they are in college or graduate school, says Anne Sturtevant, executive director of higher education at the College Board. There are also a number of scholarship and grant opportunities specifically geared toward upperclassmen.
“You’ve got nothing to lose by applying,” she says.
It starts with Fafsa
The first step — for a high-school senior or a student already enrolled in college — is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the Fafsa. This information determines a student’s eligibility for federal financial aid and is used by many states, colleges and private organizations in their aid decisions.
The new Fafsa becomes available each year on Oct. 1, and experts recommend that students fill it out annually as early as possible; those who file early tend to receive more aid than those who delay. That’s because some state and community grant and scholarship programs that use Fafsa information to make decisions provide financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis, says Erin Powers, director of communications for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
Typically, students fill out the Fafsa a year in advance of when they’ll need the funds, so a current high-school senior would use the 2018-19 Fafsa form. However, students who require federal aid for this academic year and haven’t already applied, or whose financial circumstances have changed, have until June 30 to fill out the 2017-18 Fafsa. Even after the deadlines for applying for financial aid from states and colleges have passed, the Fafsa can still be used to apply for other types of financial aid, such as federal student loans, Ms. Sturtevant says.
Beyond federal aid, students can also look for scholarships any year that they’re in college or graduate school. Certainly, scholarship opportunities are more plentiful for entering freshman, but upperclassmen may also be eligible for a number of grants from their college, local businesses, civic organizations and other sources.
To find opportunities, students can search free of charge on websites such as the College Board’s bigfuture.org. On that site, students can enter basic information such as their educational status, affiliations and types of awards they’re interested in to find out what’s available. They should select “other” as their educational status to find scholarships for students who are already enrolled in college or graduate school. Other websites to explore for scholarships include fastweb.com, cappex.com and edvisors.com.
Caitlin Riederer, a 27-year-old investor at a private-equity firm in New York, says about a third of the $100,000 she received in undergraduate scholarships was awarded during her sophomore, junior and senior years. The money came from a mixture of on-campus and corporate “case competitions” — exercises that challenge teams of students to solve a business problem — corporate and industry-group scholarships, on-campus leadership awards and entrepreneurial grants that she wouldn’t have been eligible for as an entering freshman.
Understanding college debt
Some scholarships are meant specifically for students in their sophomore, junior or senior year or for students who are in graduate school, while others are open to any undergraduate or graduate student who meets the specific criteria. Awards can be based on grade-point average, field of study, leadership and community service, among other things.
“You may end up qualifying for money from your own institution as an upperclassman that you didn’t qualify for as a freshman,” says MorraLee Keller, who, as director of technical assistance at the National College Access Network, helps students determine effective strategies for applying to college and securing financial aid.
Students who transfer from two-year community colleges to four-year institutions also have an opportunity to obtain scholarships, says Ms. Sturtevant of the College Board. A large provider of these awards is the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which each year selects about 45 transfer students to receive scholarship money for the final two to three years necessary to earn a bachelor’s degree. The amount of each scholarship varies, with a maximum of $40,000 a year.
While it takes time and effort to earn scholarships and grants, some students, like Laura Hutson, a 30-year-old junior at Temple University in Philadelphia, are determined. She keeps application essays on hand and regularly scours websites such as myscholly.com for new opportunities to help defray the costs of her education.
She hasn’t found the right match yet, but she remains hopeful.
“Money’s tight, and I’m trying to find every scholarship I can,” she says.