FAFSA Facts: What you Need to Know about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
Contemplating the costs of today’s higher education can surely make college-bound students- and especially their parents- lose sleep at night. But take comfort in knowing that the United States offers over eighty billion dollars in federal aid for students each year. A helpful chunk of that aid is likely available to fund your educational goals.
It’s important to know that the financial aid process can start even BEFORE you have been officially accepted by a college, and the process begins with a few sheets of paper called FAFSA.
FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the crucial first step towards financing your college education. All federal grants, loans, and work-study programs, as well as many private forms of financial aid, are based upon your FAFSA application.
FAFSA needs to be submitted as early as possible (typically January) in the school year you plan to attend college. If, for example, you expect to start college in September 2008, then you must submit your FAFSA in January of that same year (2008).
FAFA is a fairly straight-forward form that requests information about you and your parents’ financial situation, such as assets you (and your parents) currently have, as well as how much money you (and your parents) earned in the previous year. If you (and/or your parents) have not filed your previous year’s federal tax return, it is okay to estimate the information from the W2 forms you should have received from employers by this time.
TIP: Be prepared!
You may have to wait to receive W-2 forms from each employer you (and/or your parents) worked for in the previous year. Fortunately, much of the FAFSA can be completed without that information- fill in as much as you can ahead of time, so you can immediately focus on the financial information once you get your W-2’s (and by law, employers must give you your W-2’s by the end of January).
(NOTE: There are situations in which your parents’ information is not required, such as in the case of students who are not claimed as dependents on their parents’ income tax return.)
FAFSA also requires you specify the college you plan to attend. It’s okay if you have not yet been accepted, and it’s perfectly fine if you list more than one college you have applied to. College names are necessary for FAFSA processors to determine the total cost of attending school, and that amount can vary wildly from college to college.
FAFSA can be submitted by a traditional paper form, which you can obtain at your library or through your college’s financial aid department, or electronically through the FAFSA website (http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/).
If you have questions while completing your FAFSA application, there are many resources for finding assistance:
FAFSA website- (http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/)
FAFA toll-free help line: 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243)
FAFSA email customer service: [email protected]
When your submitted FAFSA is processed, you will receive a SAR (or Student Aid Report). Your SAR summarizes the information you have provided, so that you may correct it if necessary. It also contains an extremely important number- your EFC, or Expected Family Contribution. Your EFC estimates how much you and your parents can reasonably afford to pay towards education costs for that school year. In turn, your EFC determines the amount of federal aid you are eligible for- the lower your EFC number, the better!
(NOTE: Take heart in knowing your EFC number is not necessarily an actual amount of cash you will have to pay; your college’s financial aid office can help you with private loans and other sources of funding to meet the difference.)
Finally, FAFSA will forward your SAR to the college(s) you have named on your form, so that the individual school(s) may prepare financial aid packages. Depending on your personal financial need, your package will typically be a combination of federal grants, loans, and work-study. The staff of your college’s financial aid department are generally very helpful, and will assist you at virtually any step of the way.
All in all, FAFSA is the first and most important step on the road towards financing your college education. Your first and most important responsibility in the federal student aid process is making sure you submit your FAFSA form accurately and on time!