Students left $3.5 billion on table last year
How to unlock debt-free financial aid for college
March 9, 2023 - For many students, the cost of a college education can seem like a roadblock, despite the potentially life-changing opportunities provided by postsecondary studies. That's why college financial aid experts say students should learn all they can about a range of funding opportunities, including free grants, scholarships, on-campus employment programs and traditional student loans - by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Otherwise, they might be leaving money on the table.
Jesse Moreno is completing his Associate of Applied Science degree in paralegal at Colorado Mountain College's Salida campus. Moreno says his FAFSA application was a game-changer, allowing him access to funding that's given him the chance to commit full-time to his studies.
"I hadn't been in school for 20 years, and I was looking for something with a lot of flexibility, especially after the pandemic," Moreno says. "This has set me on a new path in life. I was uncertain about school and getting into debt, and wondering if I could make enough money while studying. But the after-effects of applying for financial aid absolutely changed my life."
Working with the college's financial aid office, Moreno discovered that the FAFSA application unlocked free grants that allowed him to focus entirely on education, taking on more credits to complete his studies more quickly. He's now interested in continuing to a bachelor's degree and possibly completing law school.
"The benefit for minimal effort is great, if you sit down and set aside an hour to complete the application," he says. "I qualified for much more aid than I expected and was able to pick and choose what I accepted. I was able to entirely opt out of loans. I was able to get enough funding to pay for books, the cost of school and my living expenses."
While the FAFSA process might seem complicated to incoming college students, applications are down in recent years, which means billions of dollars of educational funding, including scholarships, are going unused.
Janelle Cook, CMC's director of financial aid, says the issue is nationwide, with some $3.58 billion in available Pell Grants unclaimed by 2022 high school graduates, according to the National College Attainment Network.
What's more troubling, she says, is that Colorado's FAFSA application numbers are among the lowest in the country, with 44% of high school students completing the process.
"There's still a misconception that FAFSA is only for loans, but that is not true. There may be federal or other state grants available once the student completes the FAFSA form," she says.
"It's the first step in opening the door to financial aid. We encourage students to complete the FAFSA to ensure they are not missing out on funding opportunities. It is absolutely worth your time and effort."
When students and their parents have questions about the process, Cook says she and her financial aid team are there to offer personal guidance at any stage of the application.
FAFSA offers a gateway to student funding including campus employment opportunities, scholarships and both state and federal grants, as well as more student loan programs. As Cook says, that allows students to make informed decisions about their educational plans, whether they can afford to attend full-time or part-time, and if they require additional funding resources.
It's also an important step to participate in CMC's new Colorado Mountain Promise program, which can provide tuition for any Colorado resident whose family income is below $70,000 - or independent students over age 24 whose income is less than $50,000.
Students who are unable to complete the FAFSA, including DACA students or those who are undocumented, may also use the Colorado Application for State Financial Aid as an alternative option to find out about free state grants or work-study opportunities and see if they qualify.
Also, Cook adds, the FAFSA application is free. She cautions students and their families to be wary of any online sites or services asking for a fee to help complete the forms.