When it comes to lining up financial aid for college, earlier is definitely better.
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Universities have a limited amount of money they can award to students every year. Scholarships get snapped up fast. And many deadlines for state aid come and go before spring break.
That's not welcome news for any high school seniors who have yet to explore their financial aid options and still hope to attend college this fall.
No need to panic, though. Even with graduation season on the horizon, there's still time to get a slice of financial aid, even if it's only a sliver.
"Even if it's late in the game, they can still potentially qualify for federal student aid, and there are a handful of states that allow later application deadlines," said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com, a college planning and financing website.
If you still haven't applied for financial aid ahead of the 2015-2016 fall term, here are a few steps you should take:
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— COMPLETE THE FAFSA
FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The form is used by universities and the federal government to determine whether a student is eligible for Pell grants, work-study programs, federal student loans and other types of aid for college. Students must complete the FAFSA every year they're in college.
The application takes about an hour or two. Students and their parents each have sections to complete. Parents have to submit information from their most recent tax return.
The FAFSA functions on an 18-month cycle, so for the 2015-2016 university calendar, students have as long as June 30 or the end of that semester, whichever comes first, to apply.
Ideally, you want to apply well in advance of the start of the school year. That way you have a greater likelihood of qualifying for more aid, but also so that you receive whichever aid you're granted before you begin classes.
You can access the FAFSA online at: www.fafsa.gov .
— TRY STATE AID AND SCHOLARSHIPS
Many of the deadlines to qualify for state-issued financial aid for the 2015-2016 academic year have already passed.
For many of the state aid programs in California, the deadline was March 2, for example. And yet, in Illinois and North Carolina one can apply any time after Jan. 1 and the states will issue awards until all there are no more funds available for that year.
Here's a portal you can use to find out whether your state's financial aid deadlines have expired: www.fafsa.ed.gov/deadlines.htm#
Most college scholarship programs required students to complete applications by last fall or early this year. But there are some that offer a more generous window to apply.
One nontraditional option is the Stuck at Prom scholarship, sponsored by the Duck brand of duct tape. It's essentially a costume contest, paying out 20 scholarships, including a $10,000 grand prize. High school students attending a school-approved prom must create their outfit using the company's brand of duct tape. The deadline is June 1. To find out more go to: www.stuckatprom.com .
— CONSIDER LOANS
Universities generally dole out their budget for institutional grants and other aid to students accepted early by late March or early April.
That means those who apply later may not get much, if any, grant funds from their college of choice. That leaves federal aid, which more than likely will be in the form of a loan.
Completing the FAFSA generally makes the student eligible for Federal Stafford loans and PLUS loans.
— EXPLORE ALTERNATIVES
Scholarships and university grants may be thin for latecomers, but one option that parents sometimes overlook is whether their employer offers tuition assistance to the children of their staff.
Such plans can be less costly than loans, which add on interest, swelling the final cost over time. Instead, installment plans are generally paid within a year or less without interest charges.
— ADD IT UP
You've filed the FAFSA and put in for any available state aid or scholarships. Is it enough to cover your projected college costs?
Once you begin to see the type of financial aid available to you, calculate how much of a gap you'll have to cover. This online calculator from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can help: http://apne.ws/1IeLDjr .
— DEFER ADMISSION
You missed too many deadlines for scholarships and other aid this year. If you wait another year, it might make all the difference.
If you've been already accepted for fall admission, consider deferring until next year. Most schools won't love that you're deferring, but will honor their decision to grant you admission.
Meanwhile, you can use the time to work and save money. And to remember to get next year's financial aid materials in early.