No part of college planning strikes more fear in the hearts of students and parents than filing for financial aid. And no part of the college process is more important than properly securing the means to pay for college. If the 2020 presidential election is any indication, student loans and how to pay for college is not only a hot button topic, but is one of the biggest concerns of average Americans. This article will look at the key document needed to apply for federal student aid: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as well as important deadlines and information for prospective students.
Who should file the FAFSA?
The simple answer is: every student who is planning on attending a post-secondary institution whether that is college, community college, public or private university. The FAFSA is primarily used to determine which students qualify for need-based aid from the federal government. Even though the annual income threshold for qualifying for need-based aid is typically low, the FAFSA is also used by individual colleges to determine in-house scholarship packages. Many colleges and universities require a completed FAFSA to award even academic scholarships. Since most students apply to multiple colleges and universities, and colleges change requirements from year to year, the answer to the question “Who needs to complete the FAFSA” is “When In Doubt, Fill It Out.”
What is the FAFSA used for?
So what exactly is the FAFSA and what does it determine? The FAFSA is a free application used by the federal government to determine what the government thinks a family can afford to pay for a student to attend college. Keep in mind that what the government thinks you can pay and what you actually can afford are typically two different things. For the majority of families that number determined by Uncle Sam tends to be higher than what their pocket books suggest.
The amount a family can afford is what the FAFSA calls: Estimated Family Contribution or EFC. The EFC is a very important number that the federal government will use to determine need-based aid (Pell Grants, for example) and the number that many colleges will use to determine the private need-based aid that they will offer students. A family’s EFC can be anything from $0 to over $100,000/year and anything in between.
So how does the FAFSA determine a family’s EFC? The FAFSA is based on a family’s prior year Income Tax Statement. The student fills out the FAFSA as himself. (This is very important since often parents complete the actual form on behalf of their students. Keep in mind when the FAFSA asks for name and information, the parent should complete it with the student’s name and information). The student will need any tax information from the prior year as well as the financial information, income, assets, and tax returns from his parents. If the parents’ income and tax returns are not yet available, students can use estimates and then amend the FAFSA when final numbers are complete.
Once the FAFSA is submitted, it will be reviewed to determine the EFC for that student for the coming academic year. Students will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that will include any need-based aid offered from the government as well as the EFC for the coming year which will be sent to the college the student is attending.
FAFSA Deadlines for 2020-2021
When are the key dates for submitting the FAFSA? The key to financial aid is to THINK AHEAD. Often times parents of first-time college students wait until well into senior year of high school–after the student has been admitted to and selected the school she is going to–to start thinking about financial aid. You do not need to wait until you have received admission or picked which school you will be attending. The FAFSA should be completed at the same time or even before your college applications are sent.
The date to circle in red on the calendar is October 1st. This is the date the FAFSA is open for filing for the coming academic year. Federal student aid is given on a somewhat “first-come, first-serve” basis, so the earlier a family files the FAFSA the better chance of receiving aid including work study assignments.
Students can submit the FAFSA starting on October 1st, but the FAFSA is open for submission all the way through following year to June 30th, 2021. So if you are late to the financial aid game, don’t worry! You can–and should–still apply!
|Academic Year||FAFSA Opens||Federal Filing Deadline|
|2020-2021||October 1st, 2019||June 30th, 2021|
Don’t forget that students need to complete the FAFSA every year they are attending school. So just because you received a great financial aid package freshmen year, don’t get lazy and forget to send that FAFSA in again in October of your first year for next year’s aid package.
Where do I submit my FAFSA?
Like its name suggests, the FAFSA is a Free Application that can be completed online from the comfort of your dining room table. There is also a paper version available, but most families opt to complete the form online. While the FAFSA itself isn’t overly complicated, it can be daunting to gather all of the requisite documents and information. Be sure to have your prior year tax return available for making estimates along with social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and an idea of which colleges the student will be applying to.
There are nuances to every family’s financial situation. In addition, circumstances such as divorce, partial custody, foster care, and multiple college students can complicate the process. Parents can use the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC) which provides answers to questions about federal student aid and completing the FAFSA. To reach the FSAIC, call 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). This is a toll-free hotline sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.
FAFSA Tools and Resources
To get practice with the FAFSA, parents can use the government tool called FAFSA4caster to help understand what information will be needed to complete the FAFSA as well as see an estimate of the aid a student might receive. This is an invaluable tool to families trying to plan ahead for the expense of college.
The FAFSA4caster “summarizes the cost, the total aid entered, and the difference (the net cost of attending college). Your estimated Expected Family Contribution (EFC) also appears. You can compare schools by changing the cost of attendance, deleting state aid if you will be an out-of-state student at a particular school, amending the amount of aid available from the school, and so on.” Parents of even high school freshmen are encouraged to use the FAFSA4caster in planning for the expense of college.
Why file the FAFSA?
With the cost of college skyrocketing and national student loan debt surpassing total credit card debt at over $1.5 trillion, it has never been more important for parents and students to be knowledgeable of not only the cost of college, but how to apply for financial aid. The FAFSA is a valuable tool that families can use to assist them in applying for and securing funds to pay for college. The sooner that families understand their EFC, use the FAFSA4caster, and submit the FAFSA, the better chance they will have at being intentional and successful in finding a way to pay for college.