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Paying for College: Filling the Funding Gaps

After evaluating your financial aid award letters and choosing the best academic and financial fit, you may find that you still have a financial aid gap. Meaning, the amount of aid you’ll receive in scholarships, grants and federal student loans isn’t enough to cover your cost of attendance. Discovering you have a financial aid gap can be scary, but there are a few things you can do to try and fill in those gaps.

To determine your financial aid gap subtract your total financial aid award from the cost of attendance. The remainder is your financial aid gap i.e., money you will still need to come up with to pay for college. Note: Not everyone will have a financial aid gap.

Cost of Attendance – Total Financial Aid Awarded = Financial Aid Gap

How to Get More Financial Aid

If you find yourself with a financial aid gap, there are strategies available to you for reducing or eliminating that amount.

  1. Contact your financial aid office.

You want to make sure you have the best package available. So make it a priority to have a conversation with them. Ask the following questions:

  • Did I complete all the available financial aid applications? Sometimes schools will require more than just the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) ®, they may require the CSS ProfileTM or another institutional aid application.
  • Are there any other financial aid opportunities for students who are having trouble covering the cost of attendance, even after being awarded financial aid? See if your school offers any additional assistance to students in extenuating circumstances of financial need, and ask what information you will need to provide to demonstrate need.

Also, don’t forget to mention if you and your family have had significant changes to your income since you filed the FAFSA®. You may be able to submit a financial aid appeal.

  1. Review your school’s tuition payment plans.

You may not have the money to cover your financial aid gap upfront, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it over time. Many schools offer a tuition payment plan to help families cover the costs of college. If you find a plan that makes sense, you can avoid borrowing additional funds for college.

But ALWAYS be realistic about what you can afford. If you aren’t able to keep up with one of these plans, you may have to take an unexpected break from school.

  1. Search for gift aid.

Gift aid such as scholarships and grants, can come in many different forms from many different sources. If you are still enrolled in high school, set up a meeting with your high school advisor or college counselor. Ask them if there are any opportunities through the community or local organizations for scholarships. Not every opportunity is widely publicized.

If you have some time, do a scholarship search to see if there are any last minute scholarships you can apply to. A scholarship matching tool like,, will help you identify scholarships you may be eligible for.

There are scholarships that are awarded seasonally, as well as scholarships that are awarded on a rolling basis. Keep your eye on opportunities and deadlines, and apply throughout the year. Scholarships aren’t just for graduating seniors, so remember to search for opportunities all throughout your college career.

*Always keep an eye out for gift aid. Don’t stop looking just because you figured out how to pay for one year.

  1. Financing college - Discuss additional loan options with your family.

The reality is, sometimes taking out additional loans may be your only option to cover your financial aid gap. When you need to borrow additional funds, you should always have an open and honest conversation with yourself and your family. Here are two additional loan options to consider.

  • Direct Parent PLUS Loans: This is a loan made available through the U.S. Department of Education. The loan would be made to a parent who is helping their dependent child pay for their education. Parents will be the borrowers and the ones who will be required to repay the loan (there may be opportunities in the future to refinance the loans into the child's name.)
  • Private student loans: Private student loans can be made available to help cover financial aid gaps. They will require a credit check to qualify, and due to lack of work and credit history, many students will need a cosigner. This can be an option for you or your parent, or perhaps and aunt, uncle, or grandparent if that applies to your situation.

There is always a word of caution when it comes to borrowing. If you are borrowing for your first year, there is a high probability you will need to borrow for each additional year you attend college. That can really add up. Think about your future. Only borrow what you truly need to borrow, and what you can realistically afford to pay back.

  1. Get creative.

What happens if you’ve taken steps to find additional aid, and you still have a financial gap you can’t fill? It doesn’t mean the end of the road. It just means that you may need to find creative ways to achieve your higher education goals.

  • See if you can earn core curriculum credits at a community college or state school and transfer them to your desired college. You will need to consult the financial aid office or registrar’s office of the school that you would like to graduate from to discuss this option. They may have restrictions on how many credits you can transfer, and some schools may not allow you to defer enrollment while you attend another institution. If this is an option, you can potentially earn credits you need to graduate at a fraction of the price. Many community colleges have programs in place specifically for students intending to transfer to state universities.
  • Defer your enrollment to earn some money. Maybe it makes more sense for you to save a bit more for your college education. Take some time to work and save money. Not only can you get some real life experience, but you may be able to avoid borrowing money for school!
  • Reevaluate your college choice. Was there another college with a more affordable price tag? It may not have been your first choice, but if your chosen school is just too expensive, your runner-up school may be a better fit.

Financial aid gaps can make families feel defeated, but there are still ways to achieve your dreams. Be ready to discuss all options with your financial aid office, and your high school counselor. Use all of the resources made available to you to discover the best strategy for covering your financial aid gap.