Hello, high school students! If you’d like to receive free money for college, it all starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. Financial aid offices at colleges and universities--from community colleges to Ivy League higher education institutions--use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for financial aid, including student loans, grants, scholarships, and federal work-study programs. A completed FAFSA form sets the groundwork for a student’s financial aid package, and is used to determine the expected family contribution and need-based aid at any given school.
Even if you think you make too much money for financial aid, you should still take the time to complete the FAFSA. According to a recent Discover Loans survey, only 45 percent of parents filled out the FAFSA--even though 74 percent of that same group were worried about having enough money to help their students pay for college. When it comes to federal financial aid and school-based financial aid availability, don’t assume you won’t qualify. Start with the FAFSA (and, if your potential school requires it, the CSS/PROFILE), and see which potential financial aid packages are offered to you.
In a recent interview with Edmit, Columbia University’s David Sheridan said, “You have nothing to lose by applying, just fill out the forms. ... there’s the very real possibility that if [you think] you’re not going to qualify for anything, so you don’t bother applying, you might be missing out on something that you could have received.”
You can find the FAFSA at fafsa.ed.gov--this is the official site, administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Remember, students: The FAFSA is always free to complete and submit. If you find yourself on a copycat site, or a site offering assistance to complete and file the FAFSA for a fee, step away! It’s a free application; you should never have to pay to fill out the FAFSA.
First things first--register for a FSA ID on the Federal Student Aid website. This ID enables you to apply for federal financial aid, and can also serve as a legal signature. Parents and students should each apply for their own FSA ID.
You’ll also need the federal school codes for each school you’re planning to apply to; each code can be located on the Federal Student Aid--School Codes site.
Once your FSA IDs are established and you’ve located the federal school codes, you should have the following information ready in order to file the FAFSA:
Students, if you live in a single-parent household and have for the duration of the previous year, only your custodial parent needs to complete the FAFSA.
Can you fill out the FAFSA without a tax return? Technically, yes: You can estimate your current year totals based on the previous year’s tax return, and then update the FAFSA once you’ve filed your most recent tax return. If you didn’t file a federal tax return at all, you can complete the FAFSA using the parents’ W-2 and 1099 statements and/or their last pay stub of the given year.
Get your calendar reminders ready, students! You’ll need to consider the following deadlines when filling out the FAFSA:
When it comes to filing the FAFSA, early applicants may get more money: A 2015 Edvisors.com survey showed that students who filed within the first three months FAFSA forms were accepted received double the financial aid package compared to those students who waited.
However, filing when your need is demonstrated to be greatest could also result in a good financial aid package for your student: This strategy requires a tailored approach, weighing factors such as location (e.g., does first-come, first-served apply in your state or not?), as well as how both current and projected debt and assets will impact expected family contribution. Use these factors to determine your optimal time to file the FAFSA. (If you do take this approach, just make sure your highest-need date also falls within the specific federal, state, and school FAFSA deadlines!)
When it comes to determining your expected family contribution, each student will be different--and the amount will vary by school (given that each college will have a different net price and financial aid award).
After a student’s FAFSA is reviewed, the federal government will look over the family’s finances and assign an EFC number, which designates the student’s eligibility for federal student aid. Colleges then subtract the EFC number from the college’s cost of attendance to calculate federal financial aid awards, including federal Pell Grants, subsidized Stafford Loans, federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, federal Perkins Loans, and federal Work-Study. If applicable, college financial aid administrators may also use the student’s EFC number to determine any tuition discounts and school-based financial aid awards (such as college-specific grants and departmental scholarships).
If you’d like to get a sense of what your expected family contribution will be, many online calculators can help you get an estimate. While these are not final calculations, they may give you a good baseline when preparing your college budget.
You’ve sent in the completed FAFSA form well before the deadlines and got your Student Aid Report stating everything was received, no updates needed. After filing the FAFSA, you’ve notified the colleges you’ve applied to that you want to be considered for financial aid, and completed any additional school-specific requirements and applications. Now, the waiting game begins: Most schools send financial aid award letters to students along with college acceptance letters or shortly after, so you may have a few months’ lag time between once you’ve submitted the FAFSA and receiving your actual financial aid awards.
Once your financial aid packages have arrived, compare your offers to determine net prices and learn which college is your best financial fit: Look at the percentage of student loans compared to grants, scholarships, and federal work-study program money. Study expected family contribution, and what students can be expected to contribute at each school. Consider income, net price, and potential awards over the coming four years (or the total time you estimate to get your degree).
Lastly, even after you’ve chosen a school and finalized your financial aid package, don’t forget to keep good records and get a jump on next year. Once you’ve enrolled at college, you’ll be expected to submit a FAFSA for every year you’d like to receive financial aid. Luckily, returning students can file the FAFSA Renewal form, which builds off your previous FAFSA history.