College is costly, but you can help offset some of the costs by applying for financial aid. You can receive assistance from schools, federal and local governments. The first step to see if you qualify for any type of financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or (FAFSA).
The FAFSA is what assistance program providers review to determine the amount of assistance a student qualifies for and the student’s expected family contribution (EFC), which is the amount they expect the student’s family can afford to contribute toward the student’s college expenses.
Filling out a FAFSA may sound like a daunting task. But think of the FAFSA as the gateway to receiving money you need to pay for college expenses. Yes, this is a lengthy form but there’s no way around it. If you want to receive financial assistance, including student loans and grants from schools, the federal and local government, you have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Quick Eligibility Checklist for Federal Loans and Grants
To Qualify For Federal Aid, You Must:
Have a high school diploma, General Educational Development (GED) certificate, or complete a high school education in a home school approved by state law.
Be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program.
If you are a male, be registered with Selective Service System.
Have a valid Social Security number unless you are from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, or the Republic of Palau.
On the FAFSA, verify that:
- You are not in default on a federal student loan and do not owe a refund on a federal grant.
- You will use federal student aid for educational purposes only.
Maintain satisfactory academic progress in college or career school.
Be a U.S. citizen or national* or have one of the following:
- A green card (Form I-551, I-151, or I-551C)
- An Arrival/Departure Record (I-94)
- “Battered Immigrants-Qualified Aliens” status (I-797)
- A T visa
Students should begin filling out the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1 of the year they’re seeking assistance. Because some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, apply as soon as possible after October 1 of each year.
You may apply online or submit a paper application by mail. Paying a preparer is not necessary; this is a free application. The process is not complicated, and the online application guides you through each step. Once complete, the U.S. Department of Education reviews your information to see if you qualify for federal student loans or grants. Even if qualifying for federal assistance seems out of reach, it’s still a smart idea to complete a FAFSA to leave no doubt.
Here is a step-by-step plan to help you fill out a FAFSA quickly and efficiently.
Go to https://fsaid.ed.gov/npas and apply for a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. This ID will provide access to the online system and will serve as a legal signature when required. Recently, the process has moved from creating a PIN to a more technologically secure ID. This is done by creating a user ID with a password and answering a set of personal questions. If the student is listed as a dependent on one or more parents’ federal income tax returns, then the parent(s) must also apply for an ID.
Before sitting down to fill out the FAFSA, it is best to be prepared with the information and paperwork needed. There are many documents that need to be referenced. For the financial and tax information, the previous year will be necessary to refer to (For example, the 2016-17 academic year, use the 2015 information).
The following information will be helpful in filing the FAFSA:
W-2 forms for the previous year or other records of money earned for student and parent(s).
Federal income tax return for the previous year. This might include IRS 1040, 1041-A, 1040EZ, or other forms. NOTE: Federal income tax returns can also be found using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool on the IRS.gov website. It is acceptable to estimate current income and amend the FAFSA application later.
Parent’s/federal income tax return for the previous year if the student is claimed as a dependent.
A spouse’s federal income tax return for the previous year, if married.
Current bank statements and investment records for student and parent(s)./
Any untaxed income records for the previous year.
Social Security number for student and parent(s).
Driver’s license or state ID.
Alien registration or permanent resident card, if the student is not a U.S. citizen.
Colleges don’t share a single deadline for receiving aid information; it varies from state to state. However, an early application is never harmful to you. Go to https://fafsa.ed.gov/deadlines.htm to learn the student aid deadlines for the colleges for which you plan to apply.Finding FAFSA Help Online +–
To begin your FAFSA application, go to http://www.fafsa.gov and click the Start A New FAFSA button (or click the Login button if you’ve already begun and are returning.)
Start your FAFSA application with the first section: Student Demographic Information.
Enter the student’s name, Social Security number, and date of birth. Be sure the Social Security number and birthdate are accurate because these will be used to verify the information. Use the same first and last name the U.S. Social Security Administration has on file to ensure that it matches what is on file. Using a nickname (Jerry instead of Gerald, for example) could cause a delay in the process.
Male citizens and male immigrants must register with the Selective Service System to qualify for federal aid. If they have not already done so, they can elect to be registered at this time. Not enlisting when required can disqualify applicants for federal aid. Other required information includes mailing address, telephone number, marital status at time of application, driver’s license information, and e-mail address. Be sure the e-mail used is current and one that is checked regularly. Correspondence will be sent via e-mail. In addition, applicants will also need to provide other information, such as high school name and location, and if federal aid has been previously received, any drug-related convictions will need to be disclosed.Citizenship, Legal Residence, and Your FAFSA +–
The FAFSA allows up to 10 schools on the application. Don’t be shy here — a school considered out of reach for financial reasons might offer certain students a great deal on tuition, especially if minorities or fit into a category the school desires, such as an athlete.
Click the Search button to find each school’s Federal School Code. For each school, be sure to select the type of housing plan anticipated. Schools use these selections to determine expected costs.
The U.S. Department of Education needs to know if the student is dependent or independent. This is a determining factor in how much aid the student may get.
The federal government defines an independent student as one of the following: at least 24 years old, married, a graduate or professional student, a veteran, a member of the armed forces, an orphan, a ward of the court, someone with legal dependents other than a spouse, an emancipated minor, or someone who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Independent students do not receive support from their parents. They may be eligible for more aid than those who supported by their parents and claimed as a dependent on their tax returns. Applicants need to answer each question in this section carefully, especially if married, live apart from their parent(s), pay their own bills, or otherwise do not receive financial assistance from a parent. The school may require proof of any “yes” answers in this section.
A dependent student does not fall into any of the above categories, and the parent’s information will need to be provided or the application could be rejected.
Select “Unable to provide parental information” if there are special circumstances that prevent the student from providing this information. Examples include:
Student left family home due to an abusive environment
Parent(s) whereabouts are unknown
These are not special circumstances:
Parents refuse to provide necessary information
Parents refuse to contribute to educational expenses
Parents do not claim the student as a dependent on tax returns
Student lives separately from parents
Students might find it easier to complete the Parent Demographics Information section with their parent(s) at their side. If the parents are divorced or separated, the student should complete this section with the parent with whom the most time was spent over the past 12 months. Be sure not to leave any questions blank.
Remember to use the Help and Hints information for clarifications to each question.
It’s helpful to have the most recent federal income tax returns on hand, if available, to complete the financial information section. Because it is possible to complete the FAFSA before most tax returns are completed for the previous year, estimated values can be used and later updated after submitting to the IRS.
If the student’s parents have completed returns for the current year, they can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to fill out the FAFSA application automatically. In fact, using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool could speed up processing of the FAFSA application.
Include accurate net-worth information and investments, including:
Money market funds
Stocks and bonds
Education savings accounts (529 and Coverdell)
Starting in the 2017-18 school year, the FAFSA submission date and tax return information will change. For a student attending college from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, students and parents can start submitting a FAFSA on Oct. 1, 2016. The other big change is that the U.S. Department of Education will accept tax returns from 2015. Currently, you need to submit income and tax information from the previous year. With this change, you can submit information from prior to the year before. Among student financial aid experts, this rule change is known as the “prior-prior” rule, and was announced by President Obama in September of 2015.
What the prior-prior rule means to you If you are completing the FAFSA to attend school in 2017, this means that as of October 1, 2016, you can use information from 2015 tax returns. You will not need to resubmit tax information from your 2016 returns.
Do not include:
parent’s home value
Value of a parent’s business if the business employs fewer than 100 employees
A common mistake applicants make on the FAFSA is including the value of their family’s primary home or parents’ retirement plans.
Once the application is completed, it needs to be signed with the FSA ID created at the beginning of the process. If the student is dependent and the parent’s information is included, the parent needs to provide his FSA ID, which also serves as a legal signature. Once submitted, a confirmation page will pop up and should be printed out for the student’s records. And if an e-mail address was provided, a confirmation will automatically be sent.
A summary of the information submitted in the FAFSA is compiled into the Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR indicates the official expected family contribution (EFC) and helps providers determine what financial aid or student loan amounts the student qualifies for. It is sent via postal mail or e-mailed (depending on the mode submitted) to the address provided in the application. Review the SAR to ensure accuracy and for messages regarding the application, including any missing or incorrect information. It is up to the student to resolve any questions or issues the U.S. Department of Education has with the application. Any problems will need to be addressed as quickly as possible to ensure prompt correction.
The SAR information is shared with the colleges or career schools the student had listed on the application. The financial aid office at the school uses the information to determine how much federal aid might be given to the student at that school. If the school has its own financial aid program, it might use the student’s FAFSA information to determine eligibility for that aid as well.