Whether you’re a high school student in the final stretch or a college student crushing your classes, one concern may make for some sleepless nights: the high cost of a higher education. That’s where the office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) comes in and where some quick pointers can help you navigate their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA for those in the know.
If you’re just getting started with the college funding process, the FSA is the largest provider of student financial aid in the nation, awarding more than $150 billion each year to millions of eligible students in the form of grants, loans and work-study funds. The question is: do you qualify?
Once you complete and submit the FAFSA, the FSA will make that decision based on need. Using a mathematical formula, the office reviews the costs of attending college and considers your family situation, including factors such as size, contributions and income.
Keep in mind that the process is centralized, so you’ll need to submit only one initial application. If you’re still deciding on a college, you can choose up to 10 universities to receive your information. Because costs vary, the FSA will provide you with an idea of how much aid can be expected with attendance at each university selected, allowing you to do a side-by-side comparison of affordability.
So, time to get started! To sail through the FAFSA process, follow these three steps:
1. Collect relevant information and documentation
The FAFSA includes seven sections of questions or requests for information. If you’ll be attending school as a dependent student, you will need to provide information for yourself and your parents or guardians.
Be ready with basic information like Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers and, for non-U.S. citizens, alien registration numbers. Make copies of your and your parents’ federal income tax returns (or foreign tax returns for non-U.S. citizens), and gather other necessary financial information and documentation. The FSA will be interested in additional assets, such as cash, balances in savings and checking accounts, investments, business and farm assets, and any untaxed income. Keep copies of your documentation in a safe place in case you need to reference it again.
2. Check deadlines and apply as early as possible
FAFSA applications are submitted online and accepted starting October 1 for the following school year. Even though they are accepted until June 30 of the targeted school year, plan to complete your application early. Certain federal programs have limited funds, and other programs and schools may award some aid on a first-come, first-serve basis. Deadlines for specific college and state financial aid programs will vary, so confirm those dates for the upcoming school year to ensure your information is submitted on time.
If you’ve prepared all your FAFSA information, but you and your parents can’t file federal income tax returns yet, it is still possible to complete the application process. Simply provide as close an estimate as possible for your tax information, and be aware that final numbers will need to be submitted once they are available.
3. Set some calendar reminders
To ensure your FAFSA and any resulting financial aid stay on track, set some calendar reminders to keep on top of the process. First, set a reminder for any follow-up information you might need to provide, such as final income tax return figures once filings are complete.
Additionally, understand that students must submit a new FAFSA for every school year to maintain their financial aid eligibility. Set calendar reminders for each September to begin gathering information and checking on financial aid deadlines. Even if you learn that you don’t qualify for aid in your first attempt, individual and family situations can change, so you may find some aid within reach down the road.
A piece of the funding puzzle
Federal financial aid may be just a piece of the college funding puzzle for you, but it’s an important one. After maximizing any scholarships and grants, you may find federal aid has benefits that could be hard to come by through private means. For instance, federal student loans may offer fixed rates, consolidation options and income-based payments, all of which can help keep a lid on post-graduation debt.
The FAFSA process can seem daunting, but getting prepared and asking for help (FSA offers multiple free tools) can ease you through it. You got this!
For more financial insights, guidance for students in college, and free financial planning resources, visit Regions.com/schoolyears.