The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA, is the most important step to qualify for financial aid for college. This is the required form to receive federal money, such as Pell Grants, loans, and work study. Information from the FAFSA is also used by colleges to decide on grant awards and scholarships. Parents should familiarize themselves with the FAFSA and make sure they are ready to take care of this important step in the college planning process. Here is the information you need to navigate successfully through this process.
Opens in October
Beginning in the fall of 2016 families are now allowed to fill out the FAFSA in October. The FAFSA takes about thirty minutes to complete. While the application is available until June, many colleges and state financial aid programs set an earlier deadline for making their financial aid awards. It is to the student’s advantage to file early, as many awards are available on a first come, first served basis.
File Based on Prior-Prior Year Income
Many assume they can’t file the FAFSA until they have received their tax information from their employer and completed their tax returns. In fact, families can file as early as October of the fall of senior year. The system uses what is called “Prior-Prior year income.” A student planning to enroll in college in the fall of 2017 will be using tax information from 2015 to complete the form. Filers can instruct the FAFSA to automatically update information based on IRS returns when filed.
Unfortunately, some parents fear if they fill out the FAFSA it is like they’ve signed on the bottom line and agreed to pay for college. It is important to realize that filling out the FAFSA makes it possible for your student to qualify for federal, state, and college scholarships. It isn’t obligating you to pay a certain amount or take responsibility for college costs. Filing the FAFSA does not commit you to taking out student loans. What you decide to pay for college is a separate decision to make later. Refusal to fill out the FAFSA puts your child in a very difficult position. It may even disqualify your child from merit based scholarships offered by some colleges.
Double Check Answers
The most common mistake on the FAFSA is to leave an answer blank. If a question doesn’t apply to you, enter a zero. Take the time to check over your answers and make sure you correctly enter social security numbers and that you use the correct legal name.
Don’t Overlook State Money
Many states have financial or merit aid scholarships that require students to file the FAFSA. Some states provide all assistance on a first come, first served basis. Filing early can give your student the best odds of qualifying for all of the aid they are eligible for. On the FAFSA you will be able to find a link to your state college financial assistance programs.
File Every Year in College
If your student is receiving federal or state financial aid, they will need to continue to file the FAFSA every year during college. Many grants from colleges also require that the student continue to file annually. Students who did not receive financial aid the first year may not need to continue to file the FAFSA. If you are unsure if your current college student needs to file, they should contact the financial aid office at their college.
There is a lot of misinformation floating around about students filing the FAFSA as independent. Some parents believe that simply declaring they are not providing financial support will make it so their student can get more financial aid. The rules governing student independence are specific and detailed. Before you decide not to file a FAFSA make sure you understand this will make it so your student cannot receive aid they may be entitled to.
Learn About Financial Aid and Scholarships
The FAFSA is a key step for most students in the quest to access financial aid and college scholarships. It is important to understand that it isn’t the only step. Carefully planning a well-selected list of colleges is the single most important step in lowering the cost of college. Some colleges do a better job helping students with high financial need, and some colleges are more generous with merit scholarships. Understanding your student’s individual profile can help give them the best outcome possible and lower the cost of college.