Demystifying the FAFSA
What is the FAFSA?
The FAFSA. You might have seen that odd-looking, strange-sounding acronym before, somewhere during your planning-for-college process. Perhaps you heard your parents discussing it, and at the very mention of a form you shut your ears off. Somehow, the FAFSA has acquired a notoriety for boredom that we normally associate with tax law or the Dark Ages. This is just simply incorrect - the FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is easier to complete than most people think, and is essential to receiving free and almost-free money for college.
It looks confusing. Why do I need to fill it out?
If you think the hassle of filling out the FAFSA is too unbearable to endure, consider this: the FAFSA is the measuring stick for your EFC, or Expected Family Contribution. Your EFC is how much the government believes your family can contribute to your college tuition that year. If your EFC is less than the cost of attendance, you qualify for need-based aid. Many families qualify for need-based aid, but this can only be determined if you fill out the FAFSA.
The FAFSA is also required when applying for unsubsidized Stafford Loans, Parent PLUS loans, and GradPlus loans, none of which are need-based.
What happens if I don't file my FAFSA?
If you don't file the FAFSA, you forfeit your chance to receive federal aid. This can mean leaving thousands of dollars in low-interest, potentially subsidized, federal loans on the table. All colleges and universities also require the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for their own grants and scholarships.
Okay, I get it. But how do I fill it out?
Now that you understand the importance of the FAFSA, it's time to understand how easy filing the FAFSA can be.
The form itself is pretty simple, more so than you would expect. If you prepare properly, by researching school financial aid deadlines and gathering all the information and records you'll need in advance, filing it should be quick and easy. The most difficult part, however, is gathering all of the necessary documents. According to the FAFSA website, you need to gather the following information:
Your social security number
Your driver's license information
Your past year's W2 form
Your parents' (or if you are filing as an independent student, your) past year's federal income tax returns (1040)
Your past year's income records before taxes
Your current bank statements
Your current business and investment mortgage information, if applicable
Your business and farm records, if applicable
Your stock, bond, and other investment records, if applicable
Your alien registration or a permanent resident card, if you aren't a US citizen.
For the list as it appears on the official site, and to file the online application, please visit www.fafsa.ed.gov. You can also visit your high school guidance counselor, your college financial aid office, or local public library for a hard-copy application.
That is a lot of information. How long will it take to complete the FAFSA?
Yes, that's a lot of financial and personal documentation. And yes, it won't be fun gathering those forms. But it is a lot harder to gather information and file your FAFSA simultaneously. If you have your information in advance, the application can take a little under an hour to complete. Your best bet is to gather information one to two weeks prior to completing the FAFSA and to file your application as soon as you can. Many schools have a policy of first come first serve, so try to file your FAFSA as soon as the current application is available on the website. This will ensure that you are one of the first to be considered for free money.
When should I file the FAFSA?
You should fill out the form as soon as possible! Some of the documents you'll need for filing the FAFSA are time-sensitive, and you might have to wait for them before filing, such as your parent's past year's 1040. Many colleges have their own deadlines for the FAFSA, often between January 15 and April 15; this is something you should check with your school's financial aid office about.
The Department of Education has their own deadlines for filing the form. Currently, for the 2009-2010 academic year, you must file by midnight CDT on June 30, 2010. Corrections to the form are due at midnight CDT on September 21, 2010.
For the 2010-2011 academic year, the FAFSA is due at midnight CDT on June 30, 2011. Corrections to the form are due at midnight CDT on September 15, 2011.
These deadlines are all for FAFSA on the Web applications. Please visit FAFSA Application Deadlines for more information.
The FAFSA in a nutshell:
Filling out your FAFSA is the only way you can be recognized as eligible for federal, need-based aid. Even if you know your EFC is well below the cost of attendance, and even if you're filing as an independent student with absolutely no money to pay for school - if you don't fill out the FAFSA, you won't receive federal aid. As you've hopefully read on this blog before, federal aid is the best kind of aid to receive. If you file your FAFSA and your EFC is below your school's cost of attendance (COA), congratulations, you'll be receiving some amount of federal aid.
Education about federal aid is extremely important. Many students across the country don't fill out the FAFSA year after year because they assume they won't qualify for aid. Unless paying for a college education is just a drop in the bucket of your family's finances, you should definitely submit the form. Any college student is eligible to receive aid if their EFC is less than the COA, from four-year students to students at community colleges, who are actually more likely to receive federal aid, but less likely to file the FAFSA. As long as you are working towards a degree, you can be eligible, and should file.
So, ladies and gentlemen, students and parents, the moral of today's story - please, please, fill out your FAFSA. You'll be doing yourself, and your wallets, a huge favor.