(File photo) Students walk near the University of Missouri-Kansas City Student Union building Sept. 14 on the UMKC campus. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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When it comes to financial aid for college, it’s not about whether you think you’re qualified.

It’s about knowing your options, meeting deadlines and just applying.

We asked experts from the financial aid and admissions offices of local colleges what you need to know, including when to start, what applications to prioritize and how to find the best opportunities. 

Their advice is below. Also see our scholarship lists for Missouri and Kansas

Juniors, seniors, nontraditional students: Start tracking deadlines now

Local experts agree: Students shouldn’t delay researching and applying for financial aid. 

Apply “​​as early as possible,” said Dena Norris, associate vice chancellor of student financial services at Metropolitan Community College. “I say that jokingly, but kind of not.”

Some deadlines are approaching quickly.

“I would encourage all students to look at applying in September and October when they’re applying to colleges,” said Chuck May, director of the University of Missouri-Columbia admissions office. “There are many different scholarship deadlines … that happen in November or in early December.”

Other grants and scholarships — including automatic scholarships from universities that are based purely on your application for admission — have priority deadlines or operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Getting your application in early gives you the best shot at accessing funds. 

That applies to those who want to enroll by fall 2022, but high school juniors can start researching as well. 

For example, the KC Scholars program for traditional students, which provides metro-area high school graduates with up to $50,000 total over the course of college, accepts applications only from 11th graders. The National Merit Scholarship Corp. selects finalists based on junior-year PSAT scores. 

Other programs have requirements — such as minimum GPAs, test scores or volunteer mentoring hours — that may take some planning to accomplish. 

You can keep yourself organized by creating a spreadsheet listing potential scholarships, requirements and deadlines. 

If you’ve already missed some deadlines, don’t panic. Some scholarships or grants will be open through the first months of 2022 or after the school year starts. 

For example, Johnson County Community College and Metropolitan Community College both have priority deadlines of April 1. 

Missouri’s Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant for adults is accepting applications for the 2021-22 school year through May. 

If you miss a date labeled a “priority deadline,” it’s worth checking to see if funding is still available. A “priority deadline” typically means that students who meet the deadline get the strongest consideration, but latecomers may still receive funds if there’s money left over.

File the FAFSA

The entry point into many scholarships is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid

“Anyone in financial aid is going to tell a student to definitely fill that out, even if you think you’re not going to get anything,” said Tom Stuart, assistant vice president of student financial services and director of financial aid at William Jewell College

Christal Williams, director of financial aid at JCCC, said families shouldn’t get discouraged if they complete the FAFSA and learn they aren’t eligible for federal grants. The FAFSA can still be useful because states, colleges and some private scholarships use it to determine need. 

The FAFSA for the 2022-23 academic year opened Oct. 1 and will close at 11:59 p.m. Central time June 30, 2023. But you shouldn’t wait that long if you want the most opportunities. 

The Kansas priority FAFSA deadline is April 1, 2022, and the Missouri priority deadline is Feb. 1, 2022, with a final deadline of April 1, 2022. Individual colleges and universities may have earlier deadlines. 

Since the FAFSA now uses tax information from the previous year — 2020 for the 2022-23 school year — you don’t need to wait for your 2021 taxes to be filed. 

Check out The Wichita Beacon’s recent guide to the FAFSA. 

Some students may be surprised to learn they qualify for need-based aid, as some programs have higher income caps than federal grants. 

For example, the new Kansas Promise Scholarship, which covers the cost of community or technical college in high-demand fields, has income caps of $100,000 for a family of two, $150,000 for a family of three, and higher for larger families. 

Avoid financial aid scams

Some scholarship “opportunities” might actually be scams. The Federal Trade Commission says red flags include:

  • Asking for an application fee.
  • Asking for credit card or bank information.
  • Charging to help you fill out the FAFSA. (The FAFSA is always free, and you could get in trouble if the company falsifies your information to get you more financial aid.) 
  • Guaranteeing you will receive a scholarship or grant. 
  • Telling you you’re a finalist for a contest you didn’t enter.

Earlier this fall, Williams said, a student filled out the FAFSA to apply for the Kansas Promise Scholarship and discovered they were eligible for a Pell Grant. 

Williams and Nick Sutton, director of financial aid at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, also said colleges can sometimes be flexible if a family has special circumstances or recent changes that aren’t reflected on financial aid forms. But filing a FAFSA is the first step to starting a discussion. 

If you are undocumented and not eligible for federal aid, see our upcoming explainer on your financial aid options. 

Consider taking the ACT or SAT for more financial aid options

Some colleges are moving away from requiring ACT or SAT scores, but that doesn’t mean the tests aren’t valuable for financial aid. Specific state scholarships in Missouri and Kansas, such as Bright Flight and the Kansas State Scholarship, are tied to test scores, as are some merit-based institutional scholarships.

“If you’re sitting on the threshold of a higher scholarship, it may be worth retaking that test depending on how you feel about your first go-through,” Stuart said. 

Whether you should take the test at all might depend on your goals, what scholarships you’re interested in and whether your prospective schools have alternate ways of measuring your scholarship eligibility. 

Williams said students should consider taking standardized tests to keep options open. 

Standardized tests can cost $55 to $85, but fee waivers are available for the ACT and for the SAT. There are several ways to qualify, including receiving free or reduced-price school lunch.  

“Go ahead and take it just in case you may miss out on something that you could have qualified for,” Williams said. 

Dedicate time to researching financial aid opportunities

Experts suggest students set aside at least an hour or two each week to research and apply for scholarships. 

In addition to automatic scholarships based on academics, your school might have competitive scholarships with separate applications and may recommend outside scholarships.

Start by looking for scholarships close to home

Ask your parents or guardians if their employers offer scholarships to employees’ children.

Students can also look for scholarships from local businesses or organizations such as Rotary or Optimist clubs, said Stuart, noting that these may have smaller applicant pools than national scholarships.

Don’t discount looking to some wacky scholarships.

Tom stuart, William Jewell College

Students searching for financial aid “definitely need to cozy up to their high school counselors,” he added. Local opportunities are often sent to local schools, which can pass on the information.

In the Kansas City area, local and state scholarship lists that may be helpful include: 

Expand your financial aid search to national sources

National scholarship databases can help you find additional opportunities. 

Websites recommended by local experts include: 

While national scholarships have a bigger applicant pool, you might be able to find overlooked or niche scholarships that are a good fit.

“Don’t discount looking to some wacky scholarships,” Stuart said, referencing the duct tape prom outfit contest. “Leave no stone unturned.”

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Maria Benevento

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.