During your child’s final two years of high school, you’ll become well-versed in a number of acronyms—think SAT, ACT and AP tests. One of the most important? The FAFSA.
Short for Free Application for Student Aid, the FAFSA form is essential for families who are seeking financial aid for sending their kids to college.
And studies show that the majority of students need help. Faced with the cost of tuition, fees, room and board, 85% of first-time, full-time undergraduate students at four-year colleges and universities received financial aid in the 2016-17 school year, the National Center for Education Statistics reported.
Completing the application, however, can be a challenge for parents—especially if this is the first child you’re sending off to college. Here are six questions you will likely have as you fill out your FAFSA—and the answers to help you along your way.
Where do I find the FAFSA?
The online FAFSA form is found on the website of Federal Student Aid, a department of the U.S. Department of Education.
What information do I need to complete the FAFSA?
The FAFSA isn’t a loan application, but it might feel as if it is as you are filling out the form. You’ll need the following information, along with the same information for your child, where applicable:
- Social Security number. (If you’re not a U.S. citizen but have your green card, you’ll also need your Alien Registration number.)
- Federal income tax returns from the prior year, as well as documentation such as W-2 forms and records of your earned income. You will have the option to link to the Internal Revenue Service website to automatically fill in some of the information from your tax return. If you’re applying for aid for the 2020-21 academic year, figures from your 2018 tax return will be used.
- Bank statements.
- Investments statements.
- Records of any untaxed income.
What does the government define as federal student aid?
Federal student aid comes in three forms:
- Student loans. These must be repaid, with interest.
- Work-study. Through an approved work program, your student earns money earmarked for education-related expenses.
- These funds do not need to be repaid, unless, for example, your child withdraws from classes that were paid for with the grant.
In all, the U.S. Department of Education awards $120 billion in financial assistance to 13 million-plus students each year.
When do I need to submit the FAFSA?
The form is available on Oct. 1 each year. (So for the 2020-21 school year, you could have completed the FAFSA as early as Oct. 1, 2019.) The deadline is the following June 30th.
The reality, however, is that most parents complete the FAFSA as soon as their students complete their college applications. Each of your child’s prospective colleges has a Federal School Code (which is linked on the FAFSA); when you enter these codes on the FAFSA and submit it, the schools, in turn, receive your financial information.
You won’t want to wait until June 30—or even until the college acceptance letters come rolling in—to submit the FAFSA, however. The money available is limited, so you’ll want to be in the best position possible to receive a share of the pie. Plus, states use the financial information from the FAFSA to allocate grant monies, and most have earlier deadlines. So do colleges and universities that have funds to award. It’s worth taking the time to call your high school’s counseling office to find out the in-state deadline, or the financial aid office of the schools your child is interested in to learn the deadline.
Remember that you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA for each year of college, so take notes about the information required as you complete it for the first time. This way, you’ll be prepared to fill out the next one.
What happens after I submit the form?
Once the student aid office at the U.S. Department of Education receives your FAFSA, it will be processed. Within three weeks, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report that summarizes the information you submitted. Be sure to review it to ensure you didn’t make any errors.
Then, it’s the waiting game. You’ll wait for your child’s college acceptance letters and subsequent award letters from each college, to come in the mail or electronically. The award letters contain information about the cost to attend the school, how much your family is expected to contribute, and the amount and type of financial aid your student can receive.
I think I make too much money for my child to get financial aid. Why bother?
A 2019 survey said 23 percent of families don’t fill out a FAFSA form, and among those, 39 percent said they didn’t think they would qualify for financial aid.
Still, students from families that earn more than $100,000 often qualify for need-based grants. You won’t know if you’re eligible unless you apply.
Completing the FAFSA form is just one of the many steps parents can expect to take as their children get ready for college, along with visiting college campuses, and helping their children make a final decision. This investment of time can pay off immeasurably in helping children their educational dreams, without derailing your financial goals.
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