The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA, is the ticket to many thousands of dollars in financial aid for college. Just be sure you get the application right so that you maximize the money you receive to cover tuition, fees, room, board and more. Here’s what you need to know.
At the heart of the FAFSA, which can be filled out either online or on paper, is a calculation to determine how much you and your family should be able to afford to pay for college. This is referred to as the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. The formula takes into account not only financial information such as income and assets, but also how many people are in your family and how many of them will be enrolled in college at the same time. The EFC doesn’t tell you exactly how much you’ll pay for college or precisely how much aid you’ll ultimately receive, but it does rate your family’s financial strength so that schools can establish how much federal aid you’re eligible to receive.
For dependent students–and you most likely are unless you’re, say, married or serving in the military–the EFC is calculated using parents’ and the student’s income and assets, excluding retirement savings and home value. Parents’ incomes carry the most weight in the equation, followed by a student’s income. Assets run counter to that; 20% of a student’s assets are expected to be contributed, while only up to 5.64% of parents’ assets are counted. Also, a portion of the parents’ assets is protected and excluded from this equation, but that allowance has been on the decline in recent years.
Be mindful at the outset of how the FAFSA defines parents. If your parents are married or living together, you need to report details on both of them. If they live separately, you need to provide information only about the parent with whom you lived most of the time or the one who provided the most financial support over the past year. If either of your parents remarried, the stepparent should also be listed on your FAFSA. For more details, visit StudentAid.ed.gov/fafsa/filling-out/parent-info.
File Your FAFSA as Early as Possible
It’s smart to file the FAFSA as soon as you can so that you’ll be near the front of the line when schools begin handing out money. After all, aid reserves aren’t limitless. For the 2016-17 academic year, the FAFSA submission period opens on January 1, 2016. The deadline for federal aid isn’t until June 30, 2017, but some states have earlier deadlines for doling out nonfederal aid. Connecticut, for example, has a February 15, 2016, deadline. Others, such as Illinois, Kentucky and North Carolina, award aid on a first-come, first-served basis. You can find every state’s deadlines at fafsa.ed.gov.
There’s a big change coming to the FAFSA application process starting with the 2017-18 academic year. Students planning to attend school in the fall of 2017 can submit FAFSAs as early as October 1, 2016. The date shift means you will be able to use completed prior-year tax returns to fill out your FAFSA. With the current January 1 start to FAFSA filing season, many families are forced to estimate financial information on the application, then later correct the information on the FAFSA once their prior-year tax returns are completed.
All those dates may seem far off, but it’s never too soon to start preparing. Documents that you and your parents should gather before you start the application include: most recent federal income tax returns; W-2 forms; records of earned income, other taxable income such as rental income and unemployment benefits and untaxed income such as child support and veterans noneducation benefits; bank statements; records of investments; and other financial information, such as business and farm assets you may have. You also need your Social Security numbers and, if you plan to file online, FSA IDs, which act as electronic signatures. The student and one parent must each create an FSA ID at fsaid.ed.gov. Alternatively, a paper FAFSA can be filed by mail.
For the 2016-17 school year, you’ll use information from your 2015 tax returns to fill out your FAFSA. But don’t wait until you’ve filed your taxes to get started. In lieu of a W-2, you can estimate income using your 2014 tax returns, if not much has changed since then, or using pay stubs. You can update any information later, as necessary. Because of the changes going into effect for subsequent academic years, you can use your 2015 tax return again to file a FAFSA for the 2017-18 academic year, beginning as early as October 1, 2016.
How Much Financial Aid Will You Get?
You can list up to 10 schools on your FAFSA that you are applying to, along with a housing plan for each. If you’re applying to more than 10 schools, you can add the additional schools later. Information from the FAFSA will be sent to all of the colleges so that each can determine how much aid to award your family. If a university has multiple campuses, each campus should be listed separately. You can find the codes you need to enter for each using the FAFSA’s Federal School Code Search.
A few days after you submit your FAFSA, you will receive what’s called a Student Aid Report, or SAR. It takes three to five days to get the SAR if you filed online, or seven to 10 days if you mailed a paper form. Review the SAR carefully to make sure your information is correct. If it’s all good, it will be sent to the schools you selected. Follow up with each school to find out if you need to do anything else to apply for aid.
The colleges that decide to create an award package for your family will send you the details. (See How to Interpret a College Financial Aid Letter.) Your financial aid could come in many forms. There are need-based federal Pell grants for low-income students. The beauty of grants is that they don’t need to be repaid. Ditto for scholarships. There are also subsidized federal student loans, such as Stafford and Perkins loans, which do need to be repaid after you finish school, as well as work-study programs that provide a guaranteed job on campus. Because many states and colleges use the FAFSA to decide how to dispense their own nonfederal aid dollars, it’s worth completing the application even if you don’t expect to receive federal aid or take out federal student loans.