Do you have a teen who is filling out college applications? If so, there’s one more application to add to the list. It’s the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, informally known as the FAFSA, and if your teen wants to be eligible for federal financial aid, this form is where you start.
The FAFSA gives you access to the largest source of financial aid to pay for college or career school, and is used by many states, colleges, and private financial aid providers to determine your eligibility for state and school aid. In other words, if you want free money, you must fill out this form.
What happens after you fill out the FAFSA?
Once you have filled out the form, it is sent to the colleges of your choice, and using the information on the form, colleges that accept your student will draft financial aid offers to fit the student’s need. These offers will arrive in the form of a letter that spells out how much the school can offer in grants, loans, and work study. Each college will offer a package that covers your federally-calculated Financial Need. This is defined as the difference between the cost of attendance (COA) at a school and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
An important point to remember is that while COA varies from school to school, your EFC does not change based on the school you attend. This should help to free you from having to make a financially-based decision on which college to attend.
Example, if your EFC is $1000 and your student has been accepted to three colleges.
- College A has a COA of $40,000 a year;
- College B has a COA of $28,000 a year;
- College C has a COA of $12,000 a year.
No matter which school your student attends, you will be expected to pay your EFC of $1000. Each college will send you an offer of aid for the difference between that amount and the COA. So you should get offers for $39,000, $27,000, and $11,000.
You look at the letters, weigh the balance of grants, loans, and work-study, and start making making decisions about which college to choose. If you are offered loans, it doesn’t hurt to contact the financial aid office to ask for work study instead. You and your students will be blessed by anything you can do to avoid the burden of debt.
In our family’s experience, private colleges ended up being a much better deal than public universities, and I’ve heard other families attest to the same thing. One of our sons chose an eye-poppingly expensive private school, but received a full ride of grants and scholarships for the two years he attended (he had earned an Associates degree before applying). The public school to which he had also applied had much lower tuition, but offered one paltry grant and an array of loans. One of our other sons mostly worked his way through a public university, but got to the point where he just needed to finish and ended up taking a loan, which was not ideal.
You can learn a lot more about financial aid for college students at studentaid.ed.gov.
What you need to fill out the FAFSA
Fill out the application at https://fafsa.ed.gov/. It will cost you nothing, and it is fairly easy to follow. You may also fill out a paper form or download a PDF to fill out, but this is not recommended, as it takes more time and has a higher chance for error. The FAFSA website explains that you must create a secure PIN, and have the following items available so you can enter the information.
- Your Social Security Number
- Your Alien Registration Number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)
- Your most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned. (Note: You may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.)
- Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
- Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
- A Federal Student Aid PIN to sign electronically. (If you do not already have one, visit www.pin.ed.gov to obtain one.)
If you are a dependent student, then you will also need most of the above information for your parent(s). If you or your parents have not completed your taxes yet, you can estimate your income and other tax return information, and then correct your application after you have filed your taxes.
Although you have to fill out the form each year, the site saves your basic information, so the process is quicker for the second, third, and fourth years of school.
When is the FAFSA due?
The short answer is to do it as soon as possible after January 1st. You want to have your application in the hands of the college admissions counselor before any deadlines are close, and before all their scholarship money has been offered.
To be considered for federal student aid for the 2014-2015 award year, you can complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) between January 1, 2014 and midnight Central Time, June 30, 2015. Any corrections or updates must be submitted by midnight Central Time, September 19, 2015.
However, many states and colleges have earlier deadlines for applying for state and institutional financial aid. You can find your state’s deadline at https://www.fafsa.gov/deadlines. Check with your college about its deadlines.
[T]ake a look at the types of aid available. Meanwhile, remember that if you want to be eligible for federal aid, you must fill out the FAFSA whether you think you will qualify or not. If you don’t fill it out, you definitely won’t get federal aid and probably not any of the other aid tied to it, so do it. It’s well worth the effort.
Meanwhile, don’t forget that Transcripts Made Easy and Get a Jump Start on College can help you navigate these years with ease. You can do it!