FAFSA - Federal Student Aid
Posted on September 14, 2016 in Scholarships
Even if you're new to the topic of financial aid for college, you've probably heard the term 'FAFSA'. This is the common acronym used to abbreviate the name for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
The information that students and parents provide on the FAFSA is used to determine the student's eligibility for receiving federal grants, work-study benefits, and federal student loans. If a student wants to be considered for receiving federal funds that help pay for college, they must complete a FAFSA.
Completed FAFSA forms are also forwarded to the state in which the student lives, which may automatically qualify him or her for state-funded student aid programs. Keep reading to learn more about the FAFSA, important details that you need to know, and when and how you should complete it.
The FAFSA is Free to Complete
You can access, fill out, and submit the FAFSA all completely free. Companies that offer FAFSA completion services, and request a fee to help you fill out the form, are really unnecessary, since you can access the FAFSA online and free assistance is available. You can also reach out to your college's financial aid office if you have questions.
The FAFSA & Your School
Federal student aid programs are available to students who wish to pursue various kinds of post-high school education. Types of education can include:
- Two- and four-year degree programs from public or private colleges and universities
- Graduate degree programs
- Online degree programs
- Vocational or technical programs from career schools
If the school you wish to attend participates in the federal student aid program (you can find out if they do on the school's website), you can submit a FAFSA to determine your eligibility to receive aid. This is true for traditional high school students, as well as non-traditional adult students.
Know Your FAFSA Deadlines
There are three FAFSA submission deadlines that you need to know:
- The federal deadline (set each year, but usually June 30)
- Your state's deadline (where you are a legal resident, not where you plan to attend school)
- Your school's deadline
All three deadlines are important, but your state's deadline could mean the difference between receiving state-funded aid and not receiving anything at all. Some states, like North Carolina, Vermont, and Washington, award state-funded grants to students on a first-come, first-served basis. In past years, students who submitted their FAFSA by March 1 met their state's deadline.
When To Submit Your FAFSA
The government releases a new FAFSA form every January. You can get started on the form right away if you have early state or college deadlines for submission. You can also choose to wait until February, since you may need to gather some documentation and tax information that might not be available until mid-January.
Information You Will Need to Provide on the FAFSA
In addition to personal data like your name, address, social security number, and the list of colleges or universities that you have applied to, the following information is required to complete the FAFSA:
- Your or your parent's latest income tax return
- Bank statements from you and/or your parent(s)
- Statements of any investment accounts in your or your parent's names
If you have not filed your taxes yet, you may enter estimates based on last year's tax return, but you must go back and correct the information once you have completed your new return.
An important note: Applicants under the age of 23 that do not meet certain FAFSA criteria are considered to be 'dependent students', and must provide financial information from at least one parent or legal guardian.
Filling out a FAFSA Each Year
It's true: you must complete a new FAFSA each year that you wish to qualify for federal financial aid programs. It might seem like a pain to do this each year, but it could benefit you if your family's financial situation has changed in a way that makes it more difficult for you to afford college. Maybe you or a parent lost a job and your annual income is less than last year, or someone got married and there are now more people dependent on the family income. These types of changes could result in you being eligible for more financial aid than in previous years.
After the FAFSA
You might be surprised to find out that the federal government is more or less the middleman for your FAFSA. Information from your FAFSA is sent to the colleges that you listed, as well as to your state's education department. Both offices will review your information to determine your eligibility and financial need, and may choose to award you with funding or optional student loans.
Each of the colleges that you applied to and listed on your FAFSA will present you with a financial aid package or award, which is a list of scholarships, grants, work-study, and/or loans that you qualify for at that school. The list includes dollar amounts, so that you can determine if these awards will help you cover enough of the costs associated with attending that particular college.
It is common for financial aid packages from different colleges to vary drastically from one another. Colleges and universities that have private funds to offer you could really sweeten the deal. On the flipside, your top choice college may not be able to offer you the financial assistance you were hoping for. You'll need to evaluate each package and weigh your options carefully.
The thought of filling out a federal form all about your financial information can seem a little daunting when you don't know the details. In reality, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid doesn't require too much effort, and that effort could really benefit you in the long run. Don't be afraid to ask financial aid officers for help if you get stuck; you could be leaving money on the table if you don't.