The Free Application for Federal Student Aid – far better known as FAFSA – is an open invitation from the federal government to find out if you qualify for federal student aid and approximately how much aid you could expect at your school of choice.
To apply, all you need to do is gather some pertinent financial statements (W2s, income tax returns, bank statements, etc.); go online to fafsa.ed.gov; and fill out the FAFSA application.
The application takes less than an hour to complete. If you provide your email address, you’ll get results in less than a week. It’s simple. It’s quick. And it’s FREE!
Yet millions of eligible students won’t do it.
More than 1.4 million high school graduates, who could have qualified for $2.7 billion in federal aid – almost $2,000 per student! – didn’t bother to fill out the FAFSA form.
Documentation for FAFSA
Gathering the documentation necessary to fill out the FAFSA form might take longer than filling out the form itself. There is a lot of paperwork necessary, most of it dealing with financial records.
If you are a “dependent” student, meaning your parents are responsible for more than half your support, you will have to ask them to have this information readily available. If you are an “independent” student (parents provide less than 50% of your expenses), you’ll need all that same information as it pertains to you.
- Social security number
- Driver’s license number (if applicable)
- Federal income tax return from the previous year
- Bank statements for checking and savings
- Investment statements
- Records of any other income like child support, interest income and veteran’s benefits.
If you are not a U.S. citizen, you can still fill out a FAFSA student aid form, but you will need to provide your Alien Registration Number. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal aid.
FAFSA Submission Deadlines
There was a 2016 change in FAFSA application deadlines and it was a big one: Students and families can submit their information on Oct. 1 every year now and use income tax from the previous.
So, for example, students who intend to start college any time after July 1, 2018, could start the FAFSA application process Oct. 1, 2017 and use the information from their 2016 tax return.
The last day for submitting a FAFSA application is officially June 30, but most colleges already have made all their offers by then for the 2018-2019 school year. The closer you submit to Oct. 1, the better the chances are you will receive a financial aid offer.
Previously, the opening day for applications was Jan. 1, but you had to use (or estimate) your taxes for the same year you were filing. That no longer is the case.
The change to Oct. 1 gives colleges more time to sort through applications and decide how much financial aid to offer qualified students. It also gives students more time to evaluate – and possibly negotiate – better financial aid packages from the schools they are considering.
One thing every student needs to be aware of is that most states have early submission deadlines for FAFSA if you want to be eligible for financial aid from that state. California, for example, has a March 2 deadline; Connecticut has a Feb. 15 deadline; Florida’s is May 15; Tennessee is Jan. 17.
Several states and colleges, which also have different deadlines for their own awards, advise students to file FAFSA student aid forms “as soon as possible after Oct. 1. Awards are made until funds are depleted.”
To find out the state deadlines you are interested in, visit this site: https://fafsa.ed.gov/.
If you want to know the deadlines for the schools you’re interested in, contact their financial aid offices.
Who is Eligible for Student Aid?
Federal Student Aid, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, is the largest provider of student aid in the nation. It offers more than $127 billion per year in grants, loans and work-study funds to more than 15 million students.
Under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, Federal Student Aid is responsible for developing and processing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is used by the federal government and nearly every college and university to determine the eligibility of a student applying for non-merit-based financial aid. Filing a FAFSA form, therefore, is the first step in applying for more than 90% of aid money. (Merit-based aid, which accounts for the other 10%, is awarded based on talent.)
By filing a FAFSA, students learn whether they are eligible for need-based aid, such as Pell Grants, Perkins loans, federal work-study and subsidized Stafford loans; or other aid, such as unsubsidized Stafford loans and PLUS loans for graduate students.
All applicants must:
- Be a U.S. citizen, national or eligible non-citizen
- Have a valid Social Security number
- Have a high school diploma or GED
- Be registered with the U.S. Selective Service (males 18-25)
- Not owe refunds on federal student grants
- Not be in default on student loans
- Not be guilty of the sale of illegal drugs while federal aid was being received
How Do I File a FAFSA?
The FAFSA consists of approximately 130 questions related to the student’s and parents’ assets, investments, income, taxes paid, household size, and number of dependent students in the family attending college or graduate school.
Several assets are not included on the application, including retirement funds, annuities, life insurance or pension funds.
The process starts by the student creating a FSA ID. That is your personal code for signing in and out of your application. It also can serve as your legal signature. If your using financial information from your parents, they will need to create their own FSA ID for the same purposes.
A student is considered a dependent and must include parental information on the FAFSA until he or she:
- Turns 24 years old
- Enrolls in a graduate program
- Gets married
- Becomes an orphan or ward of the court
- Becomes a veteran of active military service
- Has one or more dependent children
The FAFSA requires detailed information about a family’s finances. In order to verify the accuracy of submitted information, the Department of Education and college financial aid offices may request copies of income tax returns, W-2 statements, 1099 forms or other documentation. Families refusing to supply required documentation risk being denied any form of federal student aid.
On the FAFSA, students also identify the schools to which they are applying.
What Happens Next?
Upon receipt of the FAFSA, a federal processor examines the information and enters it into the Federal Methodology (FM) formula, a complex analysis that determines a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) — the dollar amount that a student and/or family should be able to pay toward the Cost of Attendance (COA). If the EFC is less than a college’s COA, the student qualifies for need-based financial aid (COA – EFC = Need). Thus, a student may qualify for need-based aid at one college, but not at another.
Within a week after submission, the student will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), which is a summary of the FAFSA. This information also is forwarded to all the schools to which a student has applied, as well as to state agencies that award need-based aid.
Each school correlates the FAFSA information with other criteria to determine need, and then lists scholarships, grants, loans and/or work-study programs available. A final aid package is sent to the student in an Award Letter. Aid packages often vary widely from school to school.
For each year that a student plans to attend college, he or she must fill out a new FAFSA. Each institution is likely to have its own deadline. If FAFSA is filed online, answers from the previous year will be filled in automatically, and only updated tax and financial data will need to be added.
Students and their families are advised to file as early after Oct. 1 as possible and use the previous year’s federal tax returns to document their income. The online FAFSA can pull information from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
It is important to fill out the FAFSA accurately and carefully, as any errors or omissions can delay processing or cause a student to miss out on financial aid. The Department of Education advises that it typically takes one hour to complete a FAFSA.
Like taxes, the FAFSA can be completed without professional assistance. However, some people hire a FAFSA preparer to provide advice, consultation and review of their application. These companies are not affiliated with the Department of Education, and while some firms are honest and reputable, students and their families are advised to be wary of those who charge for filing a FAFSA.