It’s FAFSA time again. On October 1st, students and their families who are hoping for Federal student aid for the 2020-2021 college year, can file this essential form. Procrastinators lose out, because many schools offer their pool of merit-based aid on a first-come, first-served basis. And they look at FAFSA to get the entire financial process started.
Filing the FAFSA form – a revealing picture of the student’s family finances – determines the amount of Federal needs-based aid that will be offered. That leads to the Student Aid Report (SAR), which details the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). After the school offers work/study programs and merit-based aid from its endowment, it’s up to the family to fill the gap – either from savings or from private borrowing.
Don’t be afraid to look at that deep hole you might be required to fill. Instead, be the first to get the forms filed and the process started. You can learn more at FAFSA.ed.gov, where you can fill out the forms online. Even better, download the MyStudentAid app, available for either Apple or Android devices.
Start by setting up your account and creating a password. This process will create your FSA ID. Parents and children can and should create separate passwords — helpful for parents who want to keep income information private and out of view of either the student or a divorced spouse. You’ll need social security numbers, birth dates, driver’s license numbers. But the custodial parent’s income tax information will be automatically downloaded into the application.
FAFSA uses information from the income tax return you filed last April 15th for 2018, so don’t wait for your year-end numbers. If the family has had a significant drop in income, there is a way to amend the form to show you’re earning less.
Here are some FAFSA tips from a pro—Eva Dodds, who counsels families on the process through her affiliation with CollegeWise.com. She is an accredited college counselor, and former dean of students.
- Make sure your contact info on the form is correct, and watch for an email response notifying you that your student aid account is active for this year. Also, watch for emails requesting more information.
- Don’t assume you won’t qualify for financial aid. File anyway. Some schools require FAFSA be completed before they will give out merit aid.
- Consider filing the CollegeBoard CSS financial aid profile – which 400 schools require — in addition to FAFSA. To find a list of those schools go BigFuture.CollegeBoard.org.
- Make a list of the top 10 schools you want to receive your SAR report. It will be sent to them automatically at the same time you receive your copy, likely within 10 days of completing the application. Then you can always add more schools to the list.
- Don’t forget to REAPPLY for financial aid if you received it last year. The process is not automatic, and the same deadlines apply.
Dodds also suggests that you call school’s financial aid office and ask any questions about how that specific school might supplement any Federal financial aid, such as Stafford loans and Pell grants, as well as work/study programs. She notes that schools are worried about filling “seats” these days – especially with a diverse geographical population. That aid might make an out-of-state school more affordable than your state school.
A final recommendation: As you make your list of colleges to receive the results of your FAFSA form, start by considering the price tag! Use the excellent EFC calculator at FAFSA.ed.gov to see your likely net cost for each school to which you are considering applying. Financial aid will likely not fill the entire gap between cost and savings. Parental PLUS loans are the most expensive way of borrowing to fill that gap, and private loans are also punitive.
A reality check is in order as you start the application process. Nothing is more horrible than receiving an acceptance letter, then telling your child you can’t afford it. And that’s The Savage Truth.