Paying for college is a crucial element for students as they prepare to enter higher education. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is one of the common sources for financial assistance for college attendees. An estimated $112 billion dollars gets awarded through FAFSA in grant, work-study and loan funding each year.
That’s 112 billion great reasons to consider submitting an application.
Financial aid can be tricky and at times scary. Working in a financial aid office, I’ve heard just about every financial aid-related question you can think of, and I’ve helped a lot of students and parents understand the basics of FAFSA, scholarships, loans, and work study. I know from experience how important it is for students to feel confident and ready to make the financial investment of attending college.
That’s why it’s important to talk about the FAFSA and understand the benefits of submitting an application.
Are you ready? Let’s get to it!
What do you need to file an application?
The fastest way to fill out a FAFSA is online. The student must first create an FSA ID to be able to e-file and e-sign the application. You can click here to create an account and get started.
Then gather the documentation to complete the application. The following list offers a snapshot of what is needed, but for a more in-depth look check out the FAFSA website:
Social security number (and if prompted, for parent and/or spouse)
Income and tax information for the requested year, which can include items like:
After gathering your documents and creating your FSA account, the fun starts. The application can consist of 5-7 sections based on the student’s dependency status.
Let’s break down each section:
PRO TIP: On the FAFSA form, questions with a circle and lowercase “i” are there to help!
If you can’t make sense of the question, click the icon for details
This section includes standard address and contact information, but it’ll ask about a few other items like, state residency, student education thus far. These questions help filter the application based on the student’s situation.
Students can add up to ten different campuses to have their FAFSA sent to for review. Schools can be found by state, city and name or by their unique school code.
As a financial aid professional, one of the most frequent questions I get asked by dependent students is “Why do I need my parent(s) information on the FAFSA?”
Herein lies one of the biggest FAFSA myths. Most people assume that parent information is needed only if the student lives with their parent(s) or if the student is claimed on their parent(s) taxes. Given the “dependent” or “independent” status name, that assumption makes sense. However, that is not what determines if parental information is required. FAFSA will ask a series of questions to deem a student dependent or independent for aid purposes.
If parental data cannot be submitted due to an extenuating circumstance, check in with a financial aid professional for advice on how to submit a FAFSA.
This is only needed for dependent students.
FAFSA will ask to enter the student’s parent(s) information for review.
This is where the parent would enter applicable tax and income information. FAFSA does have what’s called “IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT)”, which is encouraged to help speed up the process. If DRT does not work, a manual entry will be required.
Regardless of dependent or independent status, the student will have to sign the FAFSA using their FSA ID. If the student entered parent data, the parent must also sign in order to complete the application.
Once signed, FAFSA will provide a quick overview of what the anticipated Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be. After that, the student will receive a Student Aid Report or SAR, which is a snapshot of aid programs that he/she may qualify for.
Once the FAFSA application is submitted, it’ll get routed to the financial aid offices of the schools the student included on his/her FAFSA form, where financial aid professionals will package a financial aid offer.
Financial Aid uses EFC to determine what type of aid can be provided. You may be asking, “Am I really expected to contribute X amount that the EFC listed for educational expenses?” This is a very common misconception, and the answer is, no.
EFC is used to identify the type of aid that a student can receive for the academic year. It does not, by any means, require the student or parent to pay that amount toward tuition and fees for students.
There are three different types of aid a student can qualify for from the FAFSA: grants, loans, and work-study.
Each type of aid differs from one to the next and each has different requirements. However, all of the types listed are considered financial aid and can help a student with their expenses. Folks often believe that FAFSA is solely for grant funding, and that they were “denied” or “didn’t get anything” from FAFSA if only loans were offered.
Let’s break down the types of aid and learn how they can help with college expenses:
Grants (gift aid)
Funds offered at the federal or state level based on need (as determined by FAFSA) that do not require repayment. Think of this funding as a scholarship, but the funds come directly from the government or the state you reside in.
Federal Direct Loans (borrowed aid)
FAFSA will offer two different loan types: subsidized loans and/or unsubsidized loans. Each loan has a six-month grace period post-graduation, meaning that the student is not required to make payments until that grace period is up.
Here are the key differences between the loans:
Subsidized loan: Need-based loan that does not accrue interest while the student is enrolled at least half-time; upon graduation, there’s an additional six months where the loan does not accrue interest that matches the grace period.
Unsubsidized loan: It will accrue interest as soon as the loan has been disbursed (applied).
Financial aid experts can help students set a budget and review their options for borrowing, if loans are needed. Loans can get a negative reputation, but they are there to help! If you do need to take out a loan, think of it as an investment to achieve your academic goals.
Federal Work Study (earned aid)
Need-based aid that is earned through eligible Work Study employment. Students must have a job in place for funds to be paid out. Funds are not applied toward education expenses, but rather, are earned through a bi-weekly paycheck that goes directly to the student.
After you receive your financial aid package, it is important to understand how that aid will be applied toward your cost of attendance (COA).
Contact a financial aid professional at your school to talk about:
What are the anticipated expenses for each term and academic year?
Will the student have a balance to pay after financial aid has been applied or will it be just enough to cover charges?
These are important questions to get answers to prior to the start of each year to build a budget based on FAFSA and/or additional aid.
Most campuses have their own scholarship funds, and it’s strongly encouraged to apply to all available opportunities.
There are a variety of resources for private scholarship opportunities, which means the student should apply as much as possible. Check in with a local community foundation, high school, employers, or do an online search for opportunities for a specific major or area of interest. Scholarship applications are free and if any require payment, it’s likely not a legitimate source.
If a student is not awarded the first year, that’s okay! I recommend you apply during each scholarship cycle, as new opportunities may arise from one year to the next.
Parent PLUS Loan: This is a program through the Department of Education where the parent is the borrower of a loan for their student.
Private loans: Lenders outside of the Department of Education. In most cases, the student is the borrower, but they will likely need a co-signer.
If the thought of sorting out how to pay for college stresses you out – take a deep breath.
FAFSA can truly help students finance their education and reach their educational goals, and financial aid offices are there to offer support with completing the FAFSA, reviewing all possible options to help pay for school, explaining an aid offer, and much more. Receiving financial aid will take away the stress of paying for college.
But you have to apply!
At the beginning of each new school year, check out the FAFSA website to find out when the application opens, so you can start gathering your documents and information.
As a financial aid professional, I am always eager to assist students as they prepare for this next big step into their future. Remember that it is okay to reach out and ask for help! There are many people on campus who are there to support you – stop by your financial aid office and say hello!
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