To access financial aid, students must start by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form allows you to apply for federal, state and institutional financial aid available. The financial aid could come in the form of grants, scholarships, loans or work study. Some of the funds available for financial aid comes from the state, federal government and the college. The FAFSA is available each year, beginning on October 1, and must be submitted each year you are in college to access federal financial aid.
Here are six basic things you should know about the FAFSA:
1. Most students qualify for some form of federal student aid
If you would like to access the most financial aid available to you, you should start with the FAFSA. In the 2016-17 academic school year, between 83-85% of first time, full-year undergraduate received some type of financial aid, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Each year, approximately $150 billion is given out in the form of grants, work-study funds, and loans. Almost $2.9 billion is left unclaimed because students eligible for federal student aid did not complete the FAFSA.
2. Information in the FAFSA is used to calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)
Your EFC is the number used to calculate your eligibility for federal student aid and other financial aid. It is based on the data you provided in the FAFSA. Within two weeks of completing the FAFSA, your family will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) with your EFC. The SAR is also sent to all the colleges you listed on your FAFSA to allow them to determine your financial aid package. If you are accepted to the college, they will send you a financial aid package that could consist of one or more of the following: grants, loans, scholarships and work-study.
The financial aid available from state, federal and college funds are administered and distributed through your college's Financial Aid office.
3. Some private colleges will require the FAFSA plus the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE
Completing the FAFSA application is the first step in applying for federal student aid and, at many colleges, institutional aid (the college's own funds). You may also be asked to complete the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE application if you are applying to a private college. The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE forms are generally for non-federal student aid coming from the college’s own funds (institutional aid). Check with your college’s Financial Aid Office.
4. Submit your FAFSA early
Filing early will increase your chances of getting more funds. It is now so much easier to file your application early since the FAFSA is available from October 1 each year and the tax information required is from prior-prior tax year (PPY) -- tax information your parents have already filed with the IRS. Some financial aid funds are available on a first-come first-served basis, so apply early.
5. Each college has a different deadline to submit the FAFSA
There are three financial aid deadlines to keep in mind: the college's deadline, deadline for federal student aid, and deadline for state financial aid. The most important date is the deadline set by the college. Visit the college's financial aid website to determine their priority and regular deadlines.
The state deadline varies from state to state; however, the federal deadline is usually nine months (June 30) after it becomes available on October 1. You should submit your application/s for financial aid as early as possible since some financial aid is available on a first-come first-served basis.
High school students can complete and submit the FAFSA during the fall of their senior year.
6. You can get an estimate of Financial Aid before you file your FAFSA
Each college has a Net Price Calculator (NPC) that will give you an estimate of your Net Price. Your Net price is the college's cost of attendance (tuition, room and board, and fees) minus any grant or scholarships you might be eligible to receive.
Remember, the Net Price is only an estimate and is not a guarantee of financial aid. In addition, all Net Price Calculators are not created the same. The better NPC (for e.g., the College Board's version) available will take about 15-20 minutes to complete. You should be prepared to answer questions that will include family income, assets and makeup of household (how many students in college) to GPA, ACT/SAT scores and class rank. Beware of calculators asking only a few basic questions -- they tend to provide the least accurate estimate.
Completing the FAFSA is the only way you will know your exact financial aid award. When in doubt, check with the Financial Aid Office at the college you plan to attend. They will be able to give you the most accurate information you need to get the most financial aid possible.