Congratulations, you’ve made the decision to attend college! While this is such an exciting time for you and your family, it’s never too early to think about paying for college. The most important thing you can do to help yourself is to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA , every year.
The FAFSA has a long-standing stigma of being very complex and quite lengthy, however many enhancements in recent years have streamlined the process and made it easier for students and families to complete. Don’t let a story you heard from your Aunt Sally from years ago influence your decision to apply.
Have questions about the FAFSA process? Keep reading to get started …
Why Should I Apply for Financial Aid?
While you may not think that you will qualify for any financial aid because your family thinks they make too much money, you should know that filing a FAFSA determines your eligibility for federal grants and loans, and many times state and institutional grants and scholarships too. There are also many states that offer free college programs regardless of your family’s income level but require that you file a FAFSA first.
It is your right to file a FAFSA to see what types of financial aid you are eligible for. In most cases, filing a FAFSA will have no impact on whether you are accepted to a particular college. Schools that practice this philosophy are known as “need-blind,” which means that your family’s financial situation will not play a role in your admissions decision. A quick Google search will help you determine if your schools of interest are need-blind.
Students who choose to not file a FAFSA often find themselves with private student loans, which carry higher interest rates and lack the consumer protections of federal student loans. You can only receive federal student loans if you have first filed a FAFSA.
*Pro Tip – If you are applying for “need blind” colleges, you have absolutely nothing to lose by doing a FAFSA!
When Should I File a FAFSA?
If you are beginning college in the Fall 2022 semester, the 2022-2023 FAFSA has been available to you since October 1, 2021. Your best bet is always to apply early since many fund sources are limited and awarded on a first come, first served basis. Always apply, even if you think you are late.
*Pro Tip – The 2023-2024 becomes available for completion on October 1, 2022 and will utilize your 2021 federal tax returns. Mark your calendar!
Will I Need My Parents’ Information?
A common misconception about needing parental information on the FAFSA is that most families relate this to personal financial independence, or how a tax return is filed. This is not true for FAFSA purposes. To determine if you need parental information, use this checklist from the US Department of Education. If you are “dependent,” you need your parents’ information, including tax and other income information. If you are “independent,” you will need the information for yourself, and your spouse if you are married when you complete the FAFSA. Remember, completing a FAFSA assesses your eligibility for all types of financial aid. It does not check anyone’s credit history or obligate a student loan to any applicant.
*Pro Tip – If your parents are divorced, separated, or remarried, check this article to help you determine which parent’s information you need to complete your FAFSA.
Create Your FSA ID
The FSA ID allows for you to electronically access and sign your FAFSA. You will need your Social Security Number, telephone number, and a valid email address. If you are a dependent student, one parent will need an FSA ID as well.
*Pro Tip – Using your FSA ID to sign your FAFSA will have it processed faster, which means it will reach your school faster!
What Documents Do I Need?
Aside from the FSA ID, you will also need to have a few other pieces of information ready. This includes your Social Security Number, Driver’s License number (if you have one), your 2020 federal tax returns and W-2 forms, any records of untaxed income and assets, and a list of the schools you want to send your FAFSA to. If you are a dependent student, your parent(s) will also need this information as well.
Within the FAFSA, you and your parent will be presented with the opportunity to securely import your federal tax information through the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, if you filed a federal tax return in 2020. While not everyone is eligible to use this tool, most are, and it is an easy way to get the required tax information into your FAFSA.
Untaxed income includes items such as child support, interest income, and any veterans’ noneducation benefits that you may have. Assets include the value of checking and savings accounts, investments, and real estate (not your primary home). The amount you should report is the current amount as of the date your FAFSA is signed.
You are allowed to send your FAFSA to up to ten different schools. If you think there will be even a small chance of attending a school you are interested in, list that school on your FAFSA … you can always remove them later. It is better to have applied early and have access to available funds then taking the chance to miss out.
*Pro Tip – While it does not matter what order you list the schools to receive federal financial aid, it does matter for receiving state financial aid. Check here to review if your state requires you to list schools in a specific order to be considered for state financial aid.
Submitting the FAFSA
If you submit your FAFSA electronically using your FSA ID, the US Department of Education will process it within three to five business days and send the results to each of the schools you listed. If you manually sign and mail the signature page, expect your FAFSA to be processed within seven to ten business days.
You will receive something called a Student Aid Report (SAR) , which summarizes all of the information you had reported. This will include your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and your estimated eligibility for the Federal Pell Grant and Federal Student Loans. If you find you made a mistake on your FAFSA, you are able to log back into your application and select the “View SAR” option to make corrections.
Once your schools receive your FAFSA, they will contact you to determine if you need to submit any other documentation to process your application and ultimately issue a financial aid award for your review.
Pro Tip – The FAFSA is always free to complete. Never pay someone to do your FAFSA. If you need help, contact any of the Financial Aid Offices at the colleges you have listed on your FAFSA. They are always available to help!