Federal student financial aid is an integral part of many students’ plans for paying for college, but applying for it and understanding it can be incredibly complicated. Applying for federal aid is the first hurdle to overcome as far as college funding is concerned. And it can be quite the challenge. For parents who are sending their first (or even their fifth) child to college, or for students who are paying for school on their own, applying for federal aid means rounding up a pile of tax documents you may have barely even laid eyes on and matching them up line-by-line with a 100-plus question form. Even Congressmen and Ph.D. candidates have admitted to being intimidated by this process.
It’s no wonder that an abundance of companies try to make a profit off of college students’ federal aid applications. Websites charging students for “consulting services” regarding federal student aid are commonplace, and private college consultants and tax preparers may also offer to complete your federal aid application for a price.
However, even if it’s your first time applying for college, you can mount a successful application for federal aid on your own. Help is available online from the Department of Education, as well as free college funding websites like Scholarships.com. Additionally, your high school’s college counselor or your college’s financial aid office should be able to help you if you get stuck. Many schools offer free workshops on completing the FAFSA and applying for federal student financial aid.
All about the FAFSA
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the main application for most federal aid programs. The FAFSA seeks to determine an individual’s ability to pay for college, and according to the Department of Education, the previous year’s tax information leads to the most accurate assessments. Questions will be asked requiring both your 1040 and your W-2s, so (if you have them) you will need both those documents to complete the FAFSA.
In the winter or spring before you are set to begin attending college, you will need to complete a FAFSA on the Web in order to apply for federal aid. Applications are available on January 1st each year and you’ll have to complete a new application for each year you are in school. FAFSA deadlines vary by state and can occur as early as the February before the first semester in which you’re requesting financial aid.
If you are an undergraduate student who is under 24, isn’t married, doesn’t have kids, and is neither a veteran nor a foster child or emancipated minor, you will need to use your parents’ tax information as well as your own, regardless of who is responsible for paying your tuition. However, if you are estranged from your parents, it may be possible to appeal through your school’s financial aid office. Appeals can also be made based on changes in your financial situation not reflected in your previous year’s income taxes, such as the loss of a job.
Understanding Federal Aid
After you’ve completed the FAFSA, you’ll receive a confirmation e-mail letting you know your application has been processed and providing you a link to your Student Aid Report, or SAR. You’ll also be able to view your Expected Family Contibution (EFC), the number that determines your eligibility for federal grants. From there, your information is also sent to the school or schools you indicated on your FAFSA, and they will be who you’ll deal with for the rest of the process of applying for and receiving your federal aid.
The financial aid office at times can seem to be speaking a whole different language. From the profusion of acronyms associated with applying for and receiving federal aid to the cryptic nature of the typical financial aid award letter, it can be difficult to decipher exactly what kind of fruit your federal aid application labor has produced. We have a page detailing common financial aid acronyms from FAFSA to SAR, as well as additional information on federal grant programs and other forms of student aid.
Hopefully this information will help you in the process of applying for federal student aid. Your college’s financial aid office and your high school’s college counselor have resources that can help you if you find yourself confused or overwhelmed by the aid application process. Above all, don’t give up on federal aid: Many students who qualify don’t bother to apply, which effectively means they’re passing up free money for college. And when you’re paying for school, every additional dollar of financial aid helps.