Tips on filling out this important federal financial aid form.

FAFSA

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Basically, it’s the form every college requires from students to be considered for need-based grants, scholarships and loans. Many schools won’t send a financial aid package, even a merit-based one, until this form is completed, so even if you are sure your family doesn’t qualify for need-based aid, put in the effort to fill it out anyway.

The key things to note The application is for the school year that begins the following fall. Essentially you can fill out the FAFSA beginning October 1 of your student’s senior year of high school for financial aid for their freshman year of college. In October of their freshman year, you fill it out for their sophomore year, etc. Though the FAFSA for each academic year stays open for 18 months, you want to complete it sooner rather than later to have a clearer idea of  how much aid your student should receive well in advance of attendance.

Though FAFSA is open for 18 months for each academic year, keep in mind that colleges and states have their own deadlines to apply for financial aid via the FAFSA. Check the websites of all the colleges your student has applied to for their FAFSA due dates and use the earliest one as your student’s FAFSA deadline.

If your high school (or one nearby offers) a workshop on FAFSA, attend. My husband and I found it invaluable.

Before you start Both you and your student must set up a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID, this replaces the FAFSA PIN used a few years ago. Students need a FSA ID to log in and parents need it to electronically sign their student’s FAFSA application. Visit the Federal Student Aid ID page for directions on how to create one.

When applying, you’ll work off of last year’s income tax return for both you and your student, so make sure to have a copy handy. FAFSA also has the IRS Data Retrieval Tool which can pull in tax return information directly from the IRS.

You’ll also need the value of your savings and investment accounts, any public assistance your family received, contributions to 401K or IRA accounts (but not the value of these accounts), any non-taxed income, etc.  You’ll need this info for your student, as well.

Note: Students whose parents are divorced or don’t live together only need to provide the financial information for the parent the student lives with most of the year or if that time is equal, the parent who provides the most financial support.

You can save as you go, so don’t worry about finishing the application in one sitting, though it won’t take as long as you think if you have the right information handy.

Filling out the application Visit the FAFSA website. Once you sign on with the appropriate ID, you’ll be asked standard identification questions, including your student’s name, date of birth, Social Security number (Alien Registration Number if not a U.S. citizen), whether they’re a dependent, married, etc. The parent info is similar, but requires additional financial information. If you’ve lost your job and haven’t found a new one, answer “Yes” to the question that asks “Is parent a dislocated worker?”

Toward the end, you will be asked which colleges should receive this information. If your student is a high school senior, provide the names of all the colleges they’ve applied to (there’s a search tool that will help you find the codes for each school), but if your student is already in college, or has accepted an admissions offer already, just list that one college.

Even if questions don’t apply, don’t leave them blank. Answer with either a zero or “No,” whichever is applicable.

Finalizing the application Review the application before signing and submitting. Remember, you and your student must use your FSA IDs to electronically sign the application.

Once you’ve submitted the application, you’ll see your “Expected Family Contribution” (EFC) at the bottom of the page (look carefully, it’s hard to find). And like every other parent, you’ll say out loud, “Really?” Because you’re thinking, If I had that much money available, I wouldn’t be requesting financial aid. You’ll also find out how much money your student (and you) can access through a federal loan. Print a copy of your completed application for your own records. Your student will receive an e-mail saying their application has been received and another notice about the Expected Family Contribution.

Good news Once the application is submitted, the info will be sent to all the colleges your student listed. Plus, when you file for the next academic year, you’ll only need to update your financial information, not fill out the entire application again.

For parents with more than one student in college at the same time, the EFC is divided among them, giving your children a better chance of receiving aid.

Other financial aid forms Some colleges also require the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE accessed through the College Board website. There is a fee for this application and more detailed questions about your finances. The finances of both parents must be reported, even if they’re divorced. Some colleges require you to fill out supplemental forms or ask for a printed copy of your signed tax return.

Colleges take this financial aid business very seriously. As much as they like to boast that the majority of their students receive financial aid, it doesn’t come easy. Good luck.

Please ask any questions and share your own advice on FAFSA in the comments section below. 

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