What to Do When Financial Aid Isn't Enough

By Maureen Shelly · January 18, 2024 · 11 minute read

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What to Do When Financial Aid Isn't Enough

The average cost of college tuition and fees for the 2023-2024 academic year is $10,662 at public colleges for in-state residents, $23,630 at public colleges for out-of-state residents, and a whopping $42,162 at private colleges. And the price tag for an undergraduate degree typically goes up every year. Any way you look at it, college is a huge expense for students and their families.

Many schools offer financial aid to make college more affordable. But sometimes your initial financial aid offer — which may include scholarships, need-based aid, and federal loans you qualify for — just isn’t enough to cover the cost. And your family may not be in a position to help you make up the difference. What do you do if you can’t afford college, even with financial aid?

Take heart: There are many options out there to help you pay for higher education. Navigating them can be a challenge, though, especially if you haven’t had to manage major financial responsibilities until now. The key is doing the research and giving yourself enough time to take advantage of all the opportunities available to you.

What follows are a few ideas on how you could get more money for school.

7 Ways to Pay for College When Financial Aid Falls Short

Apply for Scholarships and Grants

There’s a lot of “free money” for college out there in the form of scholarships and grants. Your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will automatically match you with any federal scholarships and grants you’re eligible for, but there are many other types available.

You might start your search by asking the admissions or financial aid department at the school you plan to attend about opportunities the institution offers. Aid might be need-based, merit-based, or a combination of both.

You can also look for funding options outside your school of choice. A search engine like FastWeb or
can help you hunt down scholarships that are a good fit. SoFi also offers a Scholarship Search Tool, as well as a state-based search tool.

To uncover more obscure scholarships, you may want to reach out directly to companies and organizations you have some connection to. This might include:

•   Family members’ employers and associations

•   Community service groups with whom you’ve volunteered

•   Identity/heritage groups listed on Scholarships.com

•   Religious communities you’re involved with

•   Special-interest groups, such as the Starfleet scholarship offered by the Star Trek Fan Association (there are many niche scholarships like this)

Once you’ve identified relevant scholarships and grants, you’ll need to carefully put together your application materials. Typically, you need to include a transcript, personal statement, and personal references. You may want to have a teacher, parent, or guidance counselor read over your materials and give you feedback.

Though time-consuming, this project can be well worth the effort. It’s remarkable how a bunch of smaller scholarships or grants can add up and help make college more affordable.

💡 Quick Tip: You’ll make no payments on some private student loans for six months after graduation.

How to Request More Financial Aid

You might consider appealing your financial aid award if there has been a change in your family or financial circumstances or if you believe the information on your FAFSA form does not accurately represent your ability to pay for college.

College financial aid office websites often provide information about what steps to take if you’ve had a change in financial circumstances since completing your aid application. In addition, financial aid staff are often available to provide you with guidance and discuss options if your financial aid awards or offers aren’t enough to cover your college expenses.

This appeal process will likely require you to submit additional documentation to your school’s financial aid office. If warranted, the financial aid office can then recalculate your eligibility, possibly resulting in a change to your financial aid offer.

Get a Work-Study Job

Another way to help pay for college is to work while you’re in school. Federal student aid packages may include a job through the Federal Work-Study program, which aims to fund part-time jobs that are (ideally) in the public interest or related to your field of study. Federal work-study is awarded based on financial need, so it may not be part of every student aid package.

These jobs may be on or off campus, at a non-profit organization, a government agency, or simply within your university. Some schools also set up work-study jobs with for-profit employers, and may be relevant to what you’re studying. These jobs pay at least minimum wage, but sometimes more, depending on the position.

With a work-study job, your school typically pays you by the hour, at least once a month. The number of hours you can work is limited and set by your school. To get the full low-down, ask your school’s financial aid office whether they participate in the Federal Work-Study program, how many hours you qualify for, and what job opportunities exist.

Note that qualifying for work-study doesn’t automatically guarantee you a job. You may still need to find one and apply for it. These opportunities are often limited, so it’s a good idea to start gathering information early if you decide to go this route.

Find A Part-Time Job

Another option is to look for a part-time job on your own. Your college might have internal job boards that list on-campus jobs for students or jobs that alumni have posted. Because you’re in the same network (either at your school or via alumni), you might have a leg up on outside applicants.

If you don’t find the right fit, be proactive by asking your professors, academic departments, family friends, and establishments around town whether they are looking for help. And of course, check external job sites for part-time opportunities.

Some part-time jobs, like research assistant or tutor, can help build your resume. But don’t discount flexible gigs outside your field of study that just pay well, such as waiting tables or working at an independent market like Trader Joe’s. If you play your cards right, your part-time job can more than make up for a financial aid shortfall.

Take Out Additional Federal Student Loans

If you still need more funds to fill the tuition gap, taking out additional student loans may still be an option. It’s likely that if you filled out the FAFSA and received a federal financial aid package, you may have already been awarded federal student loans.

Federal loans offer fixed interest rates and more flexible repayment terms than most private lenders. In most cases, student loans from the federal government don’t require a credit check or a cosigner, which can be especially helpful if you haven’t had time to build up a credit history.

As an undergraduate, you can take out two different types of loans under the Federal Direct Loan program. One of these is a Direct Subsidized Loan, which is awarded based on financial need. If you qualify for this loan, you will not be responsible for the interest that accrues while you’re in school and for six months after you graduate.

You can also take out a Direct Unsubsidized Loan, which does not depend on financial need. Interest on this loan will accrue while you’re in school and during the six-month grace period, though you will not be responsible for paying that interest until your repayment period begins. And you don’t have to start repaying subsidized or unsubsidized federal loans until you graduate or drop below half-time enrollment (and after the six-month grace period).

Currently, you can take out anywhere from $5,500 to $12,500 per year in federal loans as an undergraduate, depending on your dependency status and your year in school.

A parent can also take out a Direct PLUS Loan from the federal government to help you pay for school. They can borrow as much as your total cost of attendance, after any other financial aid you’ve gotten.

In order to qualify for a Direct PLUS Loan as a parent of a dependent undergrad, they will have to go through a credit check and must not have a problematic credit history. If parents request a deferment, they don’t necessarily have to start repaying their loans until six months after their child graduates or drops below part-time enrollment.

đź’ˇ Quick Tip: Parents and sponsors with strong credit and income may find much lower rates on no-fee private parent student loans than federal parent PLUS loans. Federal PLUS loans also come with an origination fee.

Apply for Private Student Loans

If you weren’t able to get enough in federal aid, including federal loans, you may be able to borrow additional loans through a private lender (such as a bank, credit union, or online lender) to cover the balance.

Private student loans typically come with higher interest rates than federal student loans and don’t offer the same borrower protections (like income-driven repayment plans). However, they come with higher borrowing limits. Typically, you can borrow up to the total cost of attendance, minus any financial aid received, every year, giving you more flexibility to get the funding you need.

Loans amounts, rates, and repayment terms vary by lender, so it’s a good idea to shop around to find the best options. As you compare lenders, keep in mind that a fixed interest rate will stay the same for the life of a loan, while a variable rate can change over time as market interest rates change.

Private student loan lenders often have a minimum credit score requirement to qualify, so you might need a cosigner to get approved for funding.

Ask Your School About Payment Plans

Some schools offer payment plans that allow you to spread the cost of tuition and fees over several payments throughout a semester, rather than having to pay in full up front. For example, you may be able to pay monthly without being charged late fees or getting dropped from your classes.

While a tuition payment plan may not reduce your expenses, it could at least make them easier to manage. You can find out about payment plans by contacting your school’s billing office (it may also be referred to as the bursar’s office, cashier’s office, or student accounts office).

Consider More Affordable Options

If you don’t qualify for financial aid, or your financial aid is not enough, you might try to reduce your costs by choosing a less expensive school. The average in-state cost of a public college is nearly 75% less than the average sticker price at a private college, according to data from U.S. News. There are even some schools that offer free tuition.

You can also reduce the cost of a bachelor’s degree by starting out at a community college, then transferring to your desired four-year school. A community college, particularly a public one, may offer a significantly lower sticker price. However, you’ll want to make sure that your prospective college will allow transfer credits.

If you have your eye on a specific career, you might also consider going to a technical college. Technical schools provide industry-specific classes that prepare students for a particular career or trade. Programs can take anywhere from less than two years to up to four years, after which you earn a certificate, diploma, or associate degree. The cost of tuition at a technical school is usually significantly less than a college or university — often as little as $5,000 per year.

The Takeaway

Just because you didn’t get enough financial aid doesn’t mean you can’t afford to attend college. By applying for grants and scholarships, taking on a part-time job, appealing your aid award, and applying for loans, you may be able to find a path to achieving your dreams.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.


How can I increase my financial aid for college?

You may be able to increase your financial aid by appealing your award. You can contact the school’s financial aid office to find out how its appeals process works. Your appeal is most likely to be successful if there was an error on your aid application, your family’s circumstances have changed since you first applied, or you have a competing offer from another school that you can ask your dream school to match.

You may also be able to get more aid for college by searching — and applying — for private scholarships. There are numerous private scholarships and fellowships available, often funded by foundations, corporations, and other independent organizations.

What income gets the most financial aid?

If you or your parents make less than $27,000, it will maximize your financial aid. However, income isn’t the only factor that goes into calculating your aid package. The government will also take your family’s assets (such as checking/savings accounts, 529s, and investment/brokerage accounts) into consideration when determining how much you can afford to pay for college.

What GPA does FAFSA require?

To remain eligible for federal student aid, students generally must maintain a GPA of 2.0 on a 4.0 scale (or at least a C average) and pass enough classes to progress toward a degree.

Is there a limit to how much FAFSA you can get?

How much financial aid you can get by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will depend on your financial need.

Federal aid programs (including grants, loans, and work-study) also have annual maximums. For example, here’s a look at the most a student could potentially get for the 2023-24 school year:

•   Pell Grant: $7,395

•   Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG): $4,000

•   Direct Subsidized/Unsubsidized Loans: $5,500 to $12,500 (depending on year in school and per year and dependency status)

•   Federal work-study: Varies by school

To get a sense of how much you may qualify for, it’s a good idea to use the Federal Student Aid Estimator .

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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