The new FAFSA opens each year October 1. What does that mean for high school seniors and their parents? Let’s break it down.
What is the FAFSA?
This is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It is a form that collects information on student status and their family financial situation in order to determine eligibility for federal student aid, including Pell Grants, federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and federally supported work study programs. In addition, most colleges rely on the FAFSA as a basis for awarding need-based grants from the college.
FAFSA an instrument of the US Department of Education, and the official Federal Student Aid website is robust and worth your time. It has sections on how financial aid works, types of aid, and how federal aid is calculated. The section on completing the FAFSA form has lots of information on required documents, factors that determine dependency status, and providing financial information. Rather than quoting each of these sections here, I encourage you to go directly to the Federal Student Aid website. Not only is the information there up to date and official, but you are likely to find a section that explains details you didn’t even realize you should be asking about.
That said, I will address a few frequently asked questions that I get from families.
Who needs to fill this out?
The FAFSA is submitted by the student, but in most cases will require information from a parent as well. The best practice is for the student to start the process by creating a FAFSA ID and then invite a parent to create a supporting account. Any student who is interested in using federal student loans, or who would like to be considered for need-based aid from colleges should submit a FAFSA. In addition, a few colleges require submission of a FAFSA for consideration for particular institutional scholarships.
Will submitting the FAFSA hurt my chance of admission?
Only a handful of colleges are need blind for admissions. Most colleges have to consider tuition-based revenue when they build their incoming class. Students who know that they want to be considered for need-based aid not only should submit the FAFSA and do so in a timely way (I suggest by the end of October), but also need to ensure that their college list includes schools that are good financial fits based on Net Cost of Attendance.
A student might choose not to submit a FAFSA if: They can a) pay the entire cost of attendance, b) for all four years, and c) they are confident that their financial situation will not change. Colleges are not generous when they think they were being played by students who claimed no financial need during admissions but then come around in spring asking for lower tuition. Some have explicit policies that need-based aid will not be awarded until the following year, even if the family financial situation changed, if the student had not previously submitted a FAFSA.
When do I need to submit the FAFSA?
You don’t have to submit on October 1, but be aware of deadlines at individual colleges. Schools often have a fall deadline for priority financial consideration that would require not only financial aid paperwork, but also a completed college application. I recommend that families try to submit the FAFSA before the end of October. (Note that you will also see dates that are state deadlines for submitting the FAFSA. This represents the last date that FAFSA can be submitted for that school year in order to be eligible for federal student loans, but may be long past when colleges have allotted their need-based financial aid for the year.)
Note: If you know that you will not be eligible for need-based aid, but want to use federal student loans, you have the option of waiting to submit the FAFSA after admissions decisions are made and letting the college financial aid office know that you are only submitting for the purpose of federal loan eligibility. (But do also read the previous section on who should submit a FAFSA.)
What information do I need to submit the FAFSA?
Questions will ask about current assets and income from the “prior-prior” year. A student applying for aid for the Fall 2021 semester would use income information from the 2019 tax year. More information on required documents and instructions are available on the Federal Student Aid website.
What if I need more help on the FAFSA?
In addition to the Help section on the Federal Student Aid website, there are blue question marks within the FAFSA itself that open up help boxes for specific topics. Federal Student Aid even has a YouTube channel. Each year there are institutions that create line-by-line walk through videos. I suggest you stick with videos from state education organizations or non-profit colleges. Remember that FAFSA is the FREE Application for Federal Student Aid. You should not pay anyone to submit this for you.
Is there anything else I have to submit for need-based aid?
There are some colleges that use an additional financial aid form called the CSS/Profile. This is administered by College Board and uses more detailed questions about family assets to determine what a family’s financial resources are. The calculated Expected Family Contribution (EFC) for the FAFSA and CSS/Profile are often different because they use different formulas. There is a charge to file the CSS/Profile, but it only needs to be completed if a student is applying to one of the colleges that require it.
Um, how do you say FAFSA?
Great question. It’s pronounced like a word, FAF-sah.