Learn About FAFSA

Learn about FAFSA and how it can help pay for college

The new Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA opens each year October 1. What does that mean for high school seniors and their parents? Read on to learn about FAFSA, why it matters, and where to get help completing the FAFSA.

What Is the FAFSA?

FAFSA 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 includes 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 explanations you didn’t even realize you should be asking about.

That said, I will address a few frequently asked questions that I get each year.

Who Needs to Complete a FAFSA?

The student submits the FAFSA, but in most cases will require information about parent income and assets. 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 seeks need-based aid from colleges should submit a FAFSA. In addition, many state grant programs require students to submit the FAFSA to establish eligibility.

Some colleges require submission of a FAFSA for specific scholarships from the college. For example, the Virginia Tech Emerging Leader Scholarship for members of the Corps of Cadets requires annual completion of the FAFSA. You should read the financial aid pages for each college you apply to in order to learn about FAFSA requirements and deadlines.

Does Submitting the FAFSA Hurt My Chance of Admission?

Let me turn this question around. Does it help you to gain admission to a college you can’t afford to attend?

A student might choose not to submit a FAFSA if: they can pay the entire cost of attendance for all four years, and they are confident that their financial situation will not change. Colleges are not generous when they suspect families of playing games by claiming no financial need when applying but then trying to negotiate a tuition. Some colleges will not award additional financial aid until the following year, if the student did not initially submit a FAFSA, even if the family’s financial situation changed.

If you aren’t sure how much each of your colleges is likely to cost, you want to use their Net Price Calculator and other resources to estimate annual cost of attendance and the total cost of a degree.

Only a handful of colleges are need blind for admissions. Many colleges consider how much financial aid each student would “cost” their financial aid budget 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 for their family budget.

Related: What Will College Cost?

When Do I Have 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 to submit FAFSA for that school year in order to be eligible for state grants, 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 colleges give admissions decisions and letting the college financial aid office know that you are only submitting for the purpose of federal loan eligibility. (But do read the previous section on who should submit a FAFSA.)

What Information Do I Need to Complete the FAFSA?

Questions will ask about current assets and income from the “prior-prior” year. A student applying for aid for the Fall 2022 semester would use income information from the 2020 tax year. More information on required documents and instructions are available on the Federal Student Aid website.

Where Can I Get 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 FAFSA the Only Form I Need for Financial Aid?

About 300 colleges, universities, and scholarships use an additional financial aid form called the CSS Profile. This asks 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.  The CSS Profile is now free for families that make up to $100,000. For other students it is $25 for the first submission and $16 per additional report. But remember students only need to complete the CSS Profile if they apply to a college or scholarship that require it.

Um, How Do You Say FAFSA?

Great question. Say it like one word, FAF-sah.

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