Can you relate to this?

Your son’s considering a particular college. On your official campus visit, the chipper admission counselor says, “Don’t forget to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA after October 1. It’s a snap to complete.” 

You think (or say out loud), “But I’m not sure I want to file the FAFSA.”

The admission counselor stares at you like you’re an alien. “But… nobody ever says that,” she replies. (If she’s a good admission counselor, she won’t do that and instead, will walk you through all your options.)

Filing the FAFSA is a great option if you want your child to qualify for need-based financial aid for college. The FAFSA can allow your child to get scholarships, grants, work-study and federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans.

But it’s not a requirement — you don’t have to file the FAFSA at all. Here’s how to pay for college without the FAFSA.

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Why Choose Not to File the FAFSA?

 Have any of these thoughts flicked across your mind? 

  • “I have zero time for the FAFSA.”
  • “I have privacy concerns.”
  • “I’m not really sure whether it’ll actually help us beyond what we’re already getting in merit-based aid.”
  • “I’ve heard you can be scammed if you land on the wrong website.”

We’ll go through these concerns one by one. 

“I have zero time for the FAFSA.”

Yes — there’s some time involved. The FAFSA does take about an hour to complete, and the prep leading up to it could take even longer. It could include gathering Social Security numbers, federal income tax returns (for the 2019-2020 FAFSA, you’ll use 2017 tax returns), W-2 forms, bank statements and any investment information such as real estate, stocks and more. 

“I have privacy concerns.”

The FAFSA website ensures safety. The website and its supported browser use Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol to establish secure sessions. But what happens once it’s submitted to the colleges your child’s interested in? There’s no question about it — the colleges you send your FAFSA to will get a comprehensive overview of your financial affairs.

“I’m not really sure whether it’ll actually help us beyond what we’re already getting in merit-based aid.”

This is a typical concern for high-income families. You may be reluctant to share your personal financial details when you think you won’t be awarded any extra money if you do file. However, know this: There’s a complex formula that’s used by every school to determine the amount of aid you might receive — beyond just income. It’s simply not true that you’d be out of the running for additional aid if you think your income is “too high.” Have an in-depth discussion with the financial aid office at each college to be absolutely sure you’ve made the right choice not to file the FAFSA.

“I’ve heard you can be scammed if you land on the wrong website.”

This is absolutely true. There are many huckster websites out there — you should never pay any money to file the FAFSA. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Here are a few other questions I frequently heard from families when I worked in admission.

1. Should we let colleges know we’re not filing the FAFSA?

Yes, you should let every college on your list know that you’re not filing the FAFSA — if you didn’t already indicate that on your application. If you left that part of your application blank (or can’t remember what you answered) tell your child’s admission counselor or the financial aid office of the schools on your high schooler’s list. 

Don’t know who your admission counselor is? Most colleges divide up the country by territory. Find your child’s admission counselors online at each school and send them a quick, professional email letting them know you’re not filing the FAFSA. 

2. Do we need to fill out any other paperwork instead? 

Every college is different, so you’ll need to ask the particular schools your child’s interest interested in about whether you need to fill out additional paperwork. For example, one school may not require you to submit anything, but another school might require you to fill out applications for merit-based aid or fill out other paperwork. 

3. Will my child be able to get scholarships and other aid?

Yes, you’ll still be able to get merit-based aid from the colleges. Just be aware that by not filing the FAFSA, you’re likely missing out on need-based grants and scholarships and you won’t be able to get any federal aid in the form of federal loans or grants or work study.

4. Will I get my financial aid packages sooner?

It’s possible that you will get your financial aid packages (also called your financial aid award letters) from various schools fairly quickly because it cuts down on the schools’ FAFSA analysis. You’ll need to check on each individual school’s timeline. 

5. What will my financial aid packages look like? 

Your financial aid award from all schools will include the following information: 

  • The cost of attendance (COA), which is just like it sounds — the amount you can expect to pay for one year of school. Your COA will list tuition, room, board and fees and might also include books and supplies, transportation and personal expenses. 
  • College scholarships, which are awarded by the schools to which you’ve applied.

Your financial aid award may be missing the following information because you didn’t file the FAFSA: 

  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is a number generated by the FAFSA that schools use to generate the financial aid your student is eligible for. 
  • Work-study, which is a federal program that your child can earn use to earn money through a job at the school she’s considering.
  • Federal student loans, which allow your child to borrow money directly from the federal government. She’ll pay back federal student loans with interest. Federal loans are offered at a low interest rate by the federal government and your student can qualify for both subsidized and unsubsidized loans. (Subsidized means that the government pays the interest while your child is in school and unsubsidized means that your child will pay interest on the loan while she’s in school.)

Ways You Can Pay for College Without the FAFSA

There are several different ways your student can tackle paying for college without the FAFSA. Think of it like this: Financial aid is like a puzzle. Colleges put different pieces of aid together to create a financial aid award.


Your child could see dollars in her pocket if she taps into merit-based scholarships, community scholarships, online and military scholarships. Scholarships are typically based on academic achievement, special talents and/or other characteristics. For example, your child may be an excellent oboe player and one of the colleges she’s interested in may have a music scholarship available.

Merit-Based Scholarships

Don’t assume that merit-based scholarships are just for straight-A students. They’re not. 

The schools your child is looking at will be able to guide you both through the merit-based scholarships that are available. Call or email the financial aid office at each school for more information about merit-based scholarships. Merit-based scholarships can be any amount — your child may be able to receive a $35,000 scholarship (or more!) at a private college. 

Community Scholarships

Encourage your child to research scholarships in your community. There are so many scholarship dollars that go unclaimed in communities nationwide — so don’t let the scholarship from the local dentist’s office pass by. Pay close attention to the scholarships’ requirements. Does your child have to write an essay? Compile a resume? Complete an interview?

Community scholarships may just come in small chunks of money — but those $1,000 scholarships can add up. Bonus tip: Look for scholarships that have a renewable component each year.

Online Scholarships

Your child can find online scholarships galore with a few simple keystrokes on Google. For example, a quick search for Kiwanis scholarships offered its scholarship opportunities page. Do thorough research with your student!

Military Scholarships 

Nonprofit organizations offer scholarships to veterans, future military personnel or active-duty personnel. Your child may also be able to get a military scholarship if he or she is related to veterans or active-duty personnel. 


What are grants and how are they different from scholarships? Grants are usually given out by specific formal entities such as a government department, corporation, foundation or trust. 

Merit-Based Grants

Your child won’t qualify for need-based grants because you’d have to file the FAFSA in order to receive them. Merit-based grants are often offered to reward high-achieving students and can usually be used at the college of your choice. Be sure to read all the grant details to be sure. Search for them online and look for grants specifically offered in your state.

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Your child won’t qualify for federal loans if you don’t file the FAFSA but may qualify for private student loans or even personal loans.

Private Student Loans

Your child can get a private student loan — banks like Sallie Mae are a primary source. Private student loans may have the following characteristics: 

  • Variable interest rates (the interest rate varies over time) or fixed rates (the interest rate never changes).
  • Cosigners are almost always required. A cosigner is someone who also signs the loan paperwork and pledges to pay back your loan if you default. A strong credit history teamed with a cosigner can lower your interest rate.
  • Your child can tap into a variety of repayment options, from deferment programs to in-school payments.

The colleges your child is considering should be able to provide you with more information about private loans. Otherwise, directly approach a bank or online bank for assistance.

Personal Loans

You and your student might want to look into personal loans, which are unsecured loans not backed by collateral. A personal loan could pay for miscellaneous school expenses — but check on its terms and interest rates.  A personal loan will likely have a higher interest rate compared to specific student loans.  

You Don’t Have to File the FAFSA — But Know What You’re Giving Up

College decisions are hard, no doubt — but they don’t need to be more complicated than you want them to be. You can ditch the FAFSA, but be sure to do your research so you know for sure it’s the best choice for you and/or your child. You could be giving up access to government loans, work-study and other options that you may need to help your child pay for college!

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