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How Can I Fill the Gap Between Financial Aid and My Ability to Pay?

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When you receive a financial aid letter from a school, you hope that the offered aid covers all of your financial needs. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case and you will be asked to foot a bill that you can’t always realistically pay without a little extra help. Luckily, there are many ways to fill the gap between your financial aid offer and your ability to pay.

Surprising Gap Between Aid and Ability

In some cases, colleges might purposely leave gaps in your aid coverage, meaning that the financial aid they provide does not cover 100% of your attendance costs. Colleges might do this because they do not have enough funds to cover the financial need of all their accepted students and so have carefully allotted money of differing coverages to each student. For example, an extremely high-performing and coveted student might receive 100% coverage, while an average student might receive 90% coverage. The schools’ expectations are that many students will be able to find other ways to cover the gap.

If the gap is alarmingly large, there might be a mistake on your FAFSA or CSS Profile. Each tool asks a lot of questions that directly affect the amount of aid for which you are eligible and there is plenty of room for human error.

If your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) seems unreasonably high compared to your family’s low income and limited assets, look for potential mistakes. Start by logging back into your account and reviewing your answers line by line. If you find an issue on the FAFSA application, you can make changes one of three ways: on the FAFSA website, mailing in the correction to the U.S. Department of Education or contacting your financial aid office directly. For more details, follow the steps on the FAFSA website.

Appealing for More Financial Aid

If you are unable to pay your portion of the bill, appeal for more financial aid. This may seem daunting, but there is really nothing to lose. No school will rescind their offer because you ask for more money. The worst they can say is no, but there is actually a good chance that they will say yes. When other students who were offered aid packages decline and enroll at other schools, aid money that was once meant for them is now unclaimed.

Start by reviewing your aid letter one more time. See if there is any information there or on the school’s website about their appeal process. You will need to follow it closely. If there are no instructions, call your financial aid office. Let them know how much you want to enroll in their school, but can’t pay the difference. Ask if there is anyway they can help cover more of your unmet need or loan debt. As the Princeton Review says, this is not a negotiation or a bargaining. You are appealing and you should intend to use language as such. Being polite and accommodating will get you much further than battering or hard-lining.

For all the details on aid appeals, read Edmit’s article on how to appeal your financial aid award.

Filling Gaps through School

Even if there is no more aid available to you through your school, there are still questions to ask your financial aid office that might help cover the rest of your school costs.

Federal Direct PLUS Loans

The Direct PLUS Loan is another loan available through the federal government. This loan is only available to the parents of an undergraduate student, as it is a credit-based loan unlike all other student loans available through the U.S. Department of Education.

Only some schools participate in the Direct Loan Program. Ask your financial aid office if this is an option they offer. Learn more here if you are a parent interested in taking out a Direct PLUS Loan for your student.

Repayment Plan

Some schools offer repayment plans to help students cover and pay off the remaining cost of attendance. You might be asked to pay this off over a semester or a longer period of time. Call your financial aid office to learn what options are available to you.


Filling Gaps Outside of School

Once you have done everything available through your school, move on to outside sources to fill the remaining gap. There are many options.


By the time you receive your financial aid letter, it is a little late in the game to apply for private scholarship—but they’re still out there. You will need to dig through Internet searches to find ones you are eligible for and that are still open for submission. Start by thinking about your interests, work or something that defines you. See if those topics combine with a scholarship. For example, do you like video games? Check this scholarship out.

Pro tip: Apply for any scholarship for which you are eligible, even the small ones. Every dollar towards your education counts. Take advantage of as much free money as you can.

Get a Job

If you have received aid from your school, that package likely already includes work-study, or the amount of money you will be expected to cover through working at the school. This value is not a cap. Do a budget and estimate how much more you will need to work to cover a significant portion of your aid gap. This could include more hours at your college job, off-campus work and paid summer gigs.

Remember that you will have to balance work with your studies. Even if you can physically work a 40-hour week during school, take a step back and assess your work style and situation. Don’t bite off more than you can chew and put your education in jeopardy.

Private Loans

Before ever considering private loans, it is important to ensure that you are accessing as much federal, state and school-specific aid as is available to you. Loans through the federal/state government and your institution will have the best repayment plans. The interest tends to be lower than private loans. And the repayment plans are more forgiving and can be deferred, put on forbearance and even completely forgiven in the right circumstances.

Many private loans do not require payment until after graduation, but will start accumulating interest upon initial borrowing date. Federal and institutional loans do not collect interest while the student is still enrolled in school. For a more in-depth look at the difference between federal and private loans, check out the FAFSA website.

All of that said, if your heart is set on a specific school, private loans aren’t the end of the world. Ready to apply to private student loans? Take these steps to get approved.

Regardless, Hit the Deadline

There are many ways to fill the gap between financial aid and your ability to pay. Use one or many of the methods above to cover your gap. Even consider having Edmit help you compare the value of your potential education versus your financial aid package.

No matter what path you take, just make sure to accept or decline an aid package and have a plan to cover the remaining costs before the decision deadline is up at your favorite school.

Edmit's advice helps you to be better off after graduation.

  • Merit and financial aid estimates based on your student profile
  • Earnings estimates and financial scores for your college and major
  • Recommendations to save thousands on college

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