A good college education is a worthy investment for the future, but not all students have the financial resources to pay for tuition and other expenses. Financing your dream college can sometimes feel like shooting for the moon! While there’s a lot to be said about college prices, at least the US federal government offers financial aid to students through the Federal Student Aid (FSA).
FSA could be the key to reaching your dream, and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is how to get it. The FAFSA is the form you need to submit to apply for financial aid as a student. This form is important because it will contain the information to decide exactly how much aid the federal government will give you.
Of course, applying for financial aid may seem like a confusing and tricky process. Follow our steps below to find out exactly what to expect, and learn how to submit a hassle-free application!
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Am I Eligible for Federal Student Aid?
Before you make the effort of applying for Federal Student Aid, it’s vital to check if you qualify. Here are a few questions to answer:
Are you a US citizen?
Because we’re talking about federal loans, it makes sense that being a US citizen is normally a requirement. However, if you’re not, don’t despair — non-US citizens may be considered under certain conditions.
Did you graduate high school or obtain an equivalent?
To get Federal Student Aid, you also need to be a student qualified to undertake a degree or certificate program. For this, you have to present your high school diploma or an equivalent like the General Educational Development (GED) certificate.
Can you confirm the following?
Finally, you need to certify that:
- you are not in default status on a federal student loan
- you do not owe any money toward a federal student grant
- you will use Federal Student Aid only for educational purposes
If you’ve met all of these conditions, congratulations! Now you know that you’re eligible for Federal Student Aid, let’s look at how you can apply and get approved.
How Do I Apply for Federal Student Aid? Six Simple Steps
1. Prepare to Apply
Even before filling out the FAFSA, it is best to take some preliminary steps. The FAFSA has some required documents, so here’s what you can prepare in advance:
- Personal documents: social security numbers for you and your parents, a driver’s license number (if applicable)
- Federal tax information: W-2 form, proof of untaxed income (such as allowances, benefits, and child support)
- Financial documents: recent tax returns, other tax documents, investment records, bank statements
Once you have your documents in order, you need to create a Federal Student Aid account at the Federal Student Aid website. Make sure to do this in advance because it takes three days for your account to be verified.
You’ll also receive your FSA ID during this step. This ID will speed up the federal aid application process by allowing you to access and amend your information online.
NOTE: If you are a dependent and a first-generation student, your parents must create an FSA account as well. They’ll need to electronically sign your application, and they cannot do that without their own FSA ID.
2. Fill in the FAFSA Form
After you’ve checked your eligibility and gathered your information, you’ve arrived at the most important step: filling out the FAFSA with your personal and family details.
This isn’t difficult, especially if you have your documents prepared already, but you do need to be careful with the details. Even if you feel like you know your Social Security Number like the back of your hand, take care to double-check every detail — the information you submit has to be 100 percent accurate.
The main requirement for Federal Student Aid is your or your parents’ income tax return. To make the transfer of information easy, the FAFSA has an IRS Retrieval Tool. If you or your parents have filed your latest income tax return online more than two weeks or sent through the mail more than eight weeks prior to completing the FAFSA, then you can use the IRS Retrieval Tool to easily transfer details from your tax return to the FAFSA.
If you didn’t file before these time frames then you can use estimated tax information in the meantime. You should still correct the information once you file your actual tax returns.
3. Receive and Double-Check Your Student Aid Report
Upon submitting the FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). If you submitted your FAFSA electronically, you’re likely to receive a link to your SAR via email within a few days. If you mailed your FAFSA, your SAR should be mailed to you in three to four weeks.
When you receive the link, you can view your SAR online to see the status of your application. Some items might be tagged for verification, more information may be requested, or you may be lucky enough to have your application marked complete! Make sure you review your data one last time in this section.
When you have your SAR, the most important figure is your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is the estimated amount the government expects you or your family to be able to contribute to your college education. This is calculated based on the information you provided about personal and family income, assets, and investments. The lower your EFC, the more financial aid you can expect.
The formula that is used to calculate your financial need is:
[su_note note_color=”#E9EAF0″](Cost of Your Chosen School’s Attendance) – (EFC) = Financial Need.[/su_note]
4. Consider Your Student Aid Options
Your Federal Student Aid may cover all, or part, of the financial need — but it’s unlikely to be offered as cold, hard cash. Instead, your Federal Student Aid can come in many different forms: grants, scholarships, a Work-Study Program, or as federal student loans.
If you are offered a grant or scholarship, these are typically the best option because they don’t need to be paid back. Grants are need-based, and they usually do not have conditions to comply with. Scholarships can be need-based or merit-based, so some of them have certain conditions.
Another potential offer you may receive is a Work-Study Program. This option offers part-time jobs that will allow students to earn money for their educational needs. The jobs involve community service or work that is related to your chosen course.
Finally, you may also be offered federal student loans. You will be charged interest on these loans, but these loans typically come with a better (lower) interest rate than private lender education loans.
5. Receive Your Student Aid
The date and manner in which you’ll receive your student aid are dependent on what kind of aid you will receive.
Grant or loan money is usually given in two disbursements. Your school will deposit your grant or loan money at least once per semester or at least twice in an academic year (start and middle of the year). The grant or loan amount will automatically be applied to your tuition and/or room and board if applicable.
If you undergo a Work-Study Program, you will get your salary once a month, usually credited to your bank account. You can then pay your tuition and expenses from it.
6. Renew Your FAFSA Each Year
You need to renew your FAFSA for every year that you attend college, or at least for every year that you intend to seek financial aid.
You can use your FSA ID to start a Renewal FAFSA application and generate all the information from the previous application. You just need to update the information and the documents (for example, your tax return).
Important Dates for FAFSA
You need to remember these important dates for your Federal Student Aid application:
October 1: applications open for the following school year.
June 30: the federal deadline for filing the FAFSA for the current academic year.
Upcoming FAFSA Deadlines
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[su_box title=”Important!” box_color=”#AB1E2D” title_color=”#ffffff”]Some states and colleges have their own FAFSA deadlines, which are generally earlier than the federal deadline. Check out the state deadlines for submitting your FAFSA online.[/su_box]
Frequently Asked Questions About Applying for Student Aid
How can I check the application of my FAFSA?
You can check the status of your FAFSA at any time after submitting it online by logging in to fafsa.gov with your FSA ID.
If you submitted your FAFSA through the mail, you’ll need to wait seven to 10 days before checking online.
Help! I need help with my student aid application, who do I talk to?
If you have any questions or concerns about your application, you can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 800-4-FED-AID (433-3243) / TTY 800-730-8913.
The line is open every Monday through Friday, 8 am to midnight EST, and Saturday, 9 am to 6 pm EST.
Where can I fill out the FAFSA?
You can fill out the FAFSA at the official Federal Student Aid website. Avoid applying through any third-party websites — these will often charge you an unnecessary fee.
Does submitting the FAFSA cost money?
The FAFSA is free to fill out online at the Federal Student Aid website. When submitting through the official channel you will never have to pay to submit your application, so beware of any websites that attempt to charge you a fee.
How else can I get money for college?
Other alternative sources of money are local scholarships, merit scholarships, and university scholarships. Private student loan are a last resort for most students since they usually have higher interest rates.
Can I apply for financial aid without my parents’ information?
Your parents’ information is required because the government assumes that your parents will help you pay for your education. That is not the case for many students, but your parents’ information is still required when you fill out your FAFSA. You can still submit your application without your parents’ information if you qualify as an independent student.
If you do not qualify for independent status, there are options given for special circumstances. However, without your parents’ information, you will not be given an Expected Family Contribution and you will only have a chance at an unsubsidized loan. An unsubsidized loan is not need-based, and usually has high interest rates. You have to pay the interest without the aid of government subsidy, so it can be a high amount.
Does applying for financial aid affect my chance for college admission?
Your application for financial aid should have no bearing on your chances of getting admitted to your desired college.
The college admission process is supposed to be “need-blind.” College admissions staff should not consider your need or financial status when you apply.
When do I apply for student aid?
The opening date of applying for student aid is October 1 prior to the next school year. For example, for the school year 2020-2021, the opening date is October 1, 2019. The deadline is on June 30, 2020.
It is advised that you apply for admission to the colleges you like before applying for financial aid. If you are already admitted to a college, they can provide additional grants or funding that can be an additional source of funding.
Securing your Federal Student Aid for college may seem like a mammoth task, but it’s surprisingly simple if you take it step-by-step! Take your time to submit now, and reap the benefits of funding throughout your college journey. Good luck!