About one-third of college-bound high school seniors don’t fill out the FAFSA–and therefore miss out on an average of $14,000 per year in financial aid. Even more students don’t fill out their state financial aid forms–despite states granting students an average of $1000 in additional financial aid. Maybe it’s because high school students often don’t realize there’s an extra step beyond the FAFSA. That’s why we’re here to explain how the state financial aid process works.
State financial aid eligibility requirements
Almost across the board, state financial aid is only given to in-state residents. That’s students from a specific state going to college in that same state. The college can be a two- or four-year accredited university. Usually you can receive aid whether you’re studying part-time or full-time.
Also, even if your immigration status forbids you from receiving federal aid, you may still qualify for state aid. Some states like Texas and New York have special applications just for undocumented residents.
The last thing you need to know about state aid eligibility is that it’s, well, complicated. Most states financial aid programs are comprised of three kinds of grants:
- One general need-based grant
- A few more-specific grants – e.g. attending a public college and studying STEM, Top 10% performer on state exams, or child of a farm-worker
- A whole slew of very specific grants – like Iraq/Afghanistan War veterans, or children of firefighters who died while in service between 1991 and 2015, etc.
Some states make this eligibility-hunting process a bit easier with slick online applications, while others make you open dozens of tabs, each with a long list of bullet point requirements.
There are 3 types of state grant application processes.
Every state’s financial aid process is distinct, and they range from the very easy (we see you, Texas) to the painfully complicated (do better, New York).
That said, there seem to be roughly three “types” of how state aid applications work:
Type 1. Don’t do anything. (Example: Texas state financial aid)
Some states, like Texas, distribute all their financial aid based on the FAFSA. There are no extra forms (unless your immigration status meant you couldn’t fill out the FAFSA, in which case Texas has got a separate TAFSA form for you.)
Type 2. One expanding form to rule them all. (Example: Florida financial aid)
Some states, like Florida, have a single financial aid form that builds on the FAFSA and basically asks you some demographic questions that determine your eligibility for specific grant programs. Then, if you’re eligible, the online form expands to include more questions relevant to that grant program. For Florida, the most famous state grant program (the merit-based Bright Futures) has now been folded into this one form.
NOTE: If you’re a junior or a fall semester senior, spend a few hours researching eligibility requirements before you get to this form. That’s because you might want to plan your next few months, to make sure you qualify for certain grant programs. For example, you might need to complete a certain number of community service hours by a specific month. Or with some states merit scholarship programs, and you’ll want to know the minimum GPA or test scores involved, so you keep those as clear targets.
Type 3. One main form, Many supplemental forms. (Example: California, Pennsylvania, and New York financial aid)
The majority of states have one main form that every resident can fill out, plus multiple supplemental forms for each of the grants with more specific eligibility requirements. Unlike with Type 2, these states don’t help you figure out which ones you’re eligible for, so you’ll simply need to spend a few hours reading through descriptions of each program.
Many supplemental application forms can be submitted online. But some states, like Pennsylvania, have PDFs that you need to snail mail in. In any case, most require you to postal mail any documentation (usually your proof of eligibility). The number of supplemental grants per state varies, but it can be a lot. For instance, in New York there are a whopping 21 programs.
State Aid Deadlines
Since every state has its own application process (and some don’t even have applications!), the deadlines will vary. Also note that some of the supplemental grant programs will have different deadlines than the “main” state aid application, so watch out for those!
Also remember that almost all state grant programs still rely on the FAFSA. So you also can’t get away with doing just your state financial aid application. (But why would you want to–when students receive an average of $14,000 in federal financial aid based on the FAFSA?)
How do I receive my state grant money?
You will receive all your financial aid (federal, state, and institutional) in your college financial aid award letter. Once you decide which college you plan to attend, the government will handle paying your college directly, so your bill will simply be lower. You will not receive money directly from the government.
Don’t forget about community foundation scholarships
Many school districts or high schools have local scholarships. An increasing number of them are hosting these local scholarship programs on Going Merry (sign up here), while others choose to have their programs managed by community foundations. These scholarships are usually funded by local non-profits, businesses, or philanthropists– and, unlike state financial aid, these programs usually require separate scholarship essays. (Get some help with those here.) So after you’re done filling out your state financial aid, make sure to Google for some local community foundations or large state education non-profits too.
Your full financial aid checklist
Think you’re done applying for all the financial aid and scholarships you can get? Double-check that you’ve completed each of the following:
- Filled out your FAFSA. (See guide here, and explanation of your EFC here.)
- Filled out your state’s main financial aid application form.
- Checked your eligibility for state grants outside the main application form– and filled out any that you qualify for.
- Checked your college’s financial aid website for any additional forms they might require, like the CSS Profile.
- Checked community foundation scholarships — and applied to any you qualify for.
- Checked for “outside scholarships” via Going Merry or other scholarship search engines.
- Appeal for more financial aid, if you believe you need or deserve it.