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Max Money: Top 10 Financial Aid tips, or how to graduate debt free

By Jose Gomez

McALLEN (4/21/21) – College students lose out on nearly $3 billion in Pell Grants each year by failing to file a FAFSA, according to These “FAFSA flakes” are leaving money on the table, making college more costly than it has to be.


Don’t miss out on the money. Read on for tips from South Texas College’s team of student and staff experts on how to graduate debt-free.
1. The ‘Biggest Hurdle’ to College Cash
“Asking for help when you don’t know something was my biggest hurdle,” reveals Jacqueline Alvarado, a work-study student in the Financial Aid Office. Though she’s about to graduate this spring, she remembers her biggest fear when it first came to financial aid:

“I believed: ‘I’m 18, I’m an adult, and I’m supposed to know all of these things.’ But in reality, I didn’t know them. And it was scary going up to someone and asking them.”

It’s a struggle Alvarado sees in many of her fellow students. But if you don’t reach out for assistance when you need it, she says, you won’t get the reward. When she finally did venture to the Financial Aid Office and saw how easy it was? All of her fears instantly melted away.

“They really gave me step-by-step on what to do and how to deal with certain situations,” recalls Alvarado. And now, she’s paying it forward by helping other students at the Financial Aid Lab, where she is happy to answer any questions.

“I was in that situation — I was lost, and I didn’t know what to do,” Alvarado remembers. When it comes to having friends in the Financial Aid Office, she advises, “It’s really good for someone to have your back … They are so welcoming.”

2. FAFSA – Do I haf’ta?
You’ll miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, and when it comes to money for college, it all starts with the FAFSA.

“You never know whether you are going to qualify or not until you actually apply,” says Judy Martinez, Coordinator of Scholarships in the Financial Aid Office.

“FAFSA” stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” As the name suggests, it’s free to fill out, and it opens the door to many types of federal aid.

Even if you think you won’t qualify? There’s no harm in thinking again. And by the way, there is no income cutoff to apply.

“We encourage students to at least complete a FAFSA,” says Martinez.

3. The #1 FAFSA Mistake Returning Students Make…
Failing to reapply every year!

“Once they’re here, they forget that they have to do the process all over again,” explains Rebecca Cano, Coordinator of Student Financial Services.

To remain eligible for aid, remember to reapply every academic year. It takes just minutes, and it’ll keep you in the game for grants, scholarships and work-study opportunities.

The one catch with the FAFSA is that you must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or eligible noncitizen. However, Texas residents can instead apply to the TASFA for state aid. Every year, about 450 STC students receive aid by filling out the TASFA.

4. … and the #1 FAFSA Mistake First-Time Students Make?
Believing that they make too much money to qualify — and failing to apply.

“Just by filling out that FAFSA, it opens up doorways,” says Cano.

Applying is always worth a shot, according to the student support expert. More than three in five South Texas College students qualify for a Pell Grant, but even if you don’t, you may still be eligible for some form of federal aid. Plus, completing your FAFSA affords you access to maximum scholarship opportunities.

“A lot of scholarships do require that the student at least complete a FAFSA,” says Martinez.

STC offers a ton of need and merit-based scholarships. So even if that Pell Grant doesn’t pan out, the FAFSA still opens up other avenues. (Keep reading for more scholarship secrets!)

5. Pro Tip: The Early Bird Gets the Money
It pays to apply to the FAFSA as soon as you can.

“If it’s state funding or institutional funding, since it’s generally a limited resource, students that do apply earlier may be eligible for additional funding,” advises Cano.

Applications open on October 1, and advisors recommend applying by March.

As for the TASFA, funding is limited. Your best bet is to apply as soon as applications open on October 1 every year. Awards are on a first-come, first-served basis.

Sometimes, life happens, and you can’t file early. No problem. You can apply year-round for financial aid.

“It’s never too late,” assures Cano. “If you’re stuck somewhere on the application, just contact us. We’re here to help.”

6. The Biggest FAFSA Roadblock – and How to Bypass It!
“If students get stuck on a question, we find that it’s usually around the income information,” reveals Cano.

If even thinking about crunching numbers makes you sweat, don’t worry. There’s a simple hack!

You can link your tax return info directly into the FAFSA with the IRS data retrieval tool. It’s as simple as pressing a button in the online FAFSA form.

“That makes the process so much smoother,” says Cano.

And if you’re a bit late in filing this year’s taxes? No sweat. The FAFSA asks that you use 2-year-prior tax returns.

It only takes about an hour, on average, to fill out the form, and you can do it all online.

7. Financial Aid Help, Online and In-Person
Stuck on a FAFSA question? Don’t throw in the towel. Get a Financial Aid advisor in your corner.

You can save your FAFSA draft before you transmit the application. If you want an expert to double-check your work, Financial Aid advisers can help on the phone, over video conference, and in-person with social distancing.

For your convenience, the Financial Aid Office is open on Saturdays and has extended hours until 6 p.m. on weekdays during peak registration times.

“We are available to help our students,” affirms Cano.

8. Scholarship Secrets: Get Paid with Extra Aid
“When it comes to financing your college education, I think scholarships are sometimes the last thing that students think about,” says Martinez.

And that’s just crazy … because so far in this academic year, STC has awarded $900,000+ in scholarships to more than 1,100 students!

It’s easy to tap into an abundance of aid. All you have to do is apply.

There are two kinds of scholarships. The first is offered through the general STC scholarship application fund. Just complete one application, and you’ll be considered for more than a dozen scholarships at once. It’s a snap!

The second kind is a mix of outside and internal scholarships that require separate applications. True, some might require multiple essays … but they’re totally worth it.

“The ones that make you work a little bit harder are probably the ones that pay off the most,” says Martinez, who always advises students to “apply for as many scholarships as you can.”

Check your student email throughout the semester to discover new scholarships. Learn more and apply at

9. Work Smart, Work-Study: Flexible Jobs & Money in Your Pocket
Want to reap yet another benefit of filling out your FAFSA? Don’t forget to check the box for “work-study.”

With that option, you may be eligible for work-study jobs to boost your resume and pump up your income. The best part? Your work-study earnings don’t count against next year’s FAFSA!

“Working in work-study, and them understanding my schedule, and also getting a bonus income really helps me out,” says Alvarado. She always recommends that other students apply.

According to the work-study veteran, the best part is the flexible hours. “They care about you,” says Alvarado. “When you say, ‘I’m sorry, but I need to study,’ they’ll give you the time off.”

10. The Debt-Free Formula
What’s the secret to dropping college debt? According to Alvarado, it’s actually not a secret at all. She’ll be graduating at the end of this semester with zero outstanding loans … and she’ll be the third in her family to do so!

“Before this semester, I attended a different university — and I was already getting myself into debt,” says Alvarado. “I saw that, and I was just like, honestly, STC is so affordable. It’s so flexible with me. And it’s given me so many opportunities. So, I just decided to go back.”

Not only is the Criminal Justice major back for her third year, but she may also be here to stay. She says she’s considering continuing at STC to earn her bachelor’s.

So, you might just see Alvarado at the Financial Aid Lab, offering sage FAFSA advice. And she’s super excited to help you discover the “STC way” to ditching debt.

“Don’t be scared — ask as many questions as you want,” she advises. “We’re here with open arms, and we will answer any question.”

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