If it’s fall, it must be financial aid application season, and if you’re like many of the parents in our Paying for College 101 Facebook group, you have FAFSA questions — the thought of diving into the FAFSA is giving your heart palpitations. As one member said, “I’m having a FAFSA meltdown. I think I’ll let my spouse handle this.”
Don’t worry! There’s no need to have a meltdown. You CAN handle the FAFSA. We’ve answered key FAFSA questions below, so you’ll be ready to dive in with everything you need to know to fill it out.
Remember, ALL families should fill out the FAFSA, and you want to fill it out on the early side, because many schools award aid on a first-come-first serve basis.
Here’s what you need to know to be ready.
Why Does the FAFSA Matter?
The FAFSA is how your student qualifies for federal aid, including federal loans, federal grants, and federal work-study.
In addition, some schools will not award merit-based aid unless a FAFSA has been submitted. So even if you don’t expect to have any financial need based on your income, you should still consider completing FAFSA. To be safe, contact the schools your student is applying to and ask if a completed FAFSA is necessary to be considered for merit-based aid. You wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity for merit-based aid just because you didn’t submit a FAFSA.
Besides receiving grants and scholarships from colleges, the FAFSA is the only way for a student to get loans that are in their name only. Remember, not all federal loans depend on income – unsubsidized federal student loans are available to everyone. That’s why private lenders, like College Ave, always recommend that students exhaust their federal loans before pursuing private loans.
In addition, something unexpected can always happen to your family’s primary income. Having a FAFSA on file will make it much easier to file an amendment so that your student’s school can reevaluate your student’s financial situation. This is far better than having to deal with loads of paperwork during an already difficult time!
The FAFSA only covers one year of school attendance. Each year a new FAFSA will need to be submitted. It’s available every October 1st for the following fall, and it pays to fill it out as early as possible!
Which Tax Year Will I Need?
It can be hard to keep track of which tax year you’re using. The rule is that you need the prior-prior year to the year of attendance. For example, since the year of attendance will be 2023, you will need the 2021 tax year information.
You can make it really simple for yourself by using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) if you are eligible. This tool allows students and parents who filed a U.S tax return to have their tax information transfer directly into the FAFSA. It’s a great tool that can save you time and reduce errors.
Do My Student and I Both Need FSA IDs?
Your Federal Student Aid ID is a lifetime login and password that you use to access the financial aid sites. You need one, and you can use it for multiple children’s FAFSA forms. Each of your children that you fill out the FAFSA for also need an FSA ID.
Creating Your FSA ID
You can create your ID online at studentaid.gov if you don’t already have one. You cannot share an ID between you and your student. Each person needs their own.
The FSA ID is different than the Federal Student Aid PIN you may have created prior to 2015 for another student. Fortunately, you can quickly transfer your PIN to an FSA ID.
Once you go through the creation process, you’ll need to verify and confirm your email address. If you did not previously have a Federal Student Aid PIN, it will take 1 – 3 days before your account is verified and confirmed. You’ll get an email when the process is complete.
Keep this in mind and be sure to get your FSA ID before October 1, so that you’re ready to go on the big day!
Using Your FSA ID
Once you have a FSA ID, you can use it each time you have another child getting ready for college. However, your student will also need one of their own!
Finally, it’s vital that both you and your student keep your usernames and passwords as secure as you can. Security is important when you’re dealing with any financial transaction!
If you ever feel that your FSA ID has been compromised, contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) right away.
What Information Do I Need to Fill Out FAFSA?
Beyond your 2021 tax return, you’ll also need information about untaxed income (which includes child support, interest income, and other items.)
The FAFSA will also ask about the value of specific assets, such as your savings and checking accounts, real estate (except your primary residence), and investments.
You want to make sure you correctly report values and pay close attention to what should be a student investment and what should be a parent investment.
What if you make a mistake on the FAFSA? Fortunately, they are easy to correct. You can simply log in to FAFSA on the Web and click on “Make FAFSA corrections.”
On the corrections page, you can make a variety of changes:
- Add or remove colleges from receiving your financial information
- Change your email or mailing address
- Correct any field on the FAFSA except your social security number
Wondering how your FAFSA is used to determine your EFC? Find out here!
My Student Hasn’t Made Final Decisions on Where to Apply, Can I Still Fill Out FAFSA?
Your student may not have applied to schools yet, but the FAFSA information should be sent to any school they are considering. If you wait till your student has finalized their list you may miss out on early-round financial aid at the schools they are certain they want to apply to.
The school won’t send you a financial aid offer unless your student is accepted, so don’t be shy. Get your financial information in as soon as you can.
Know if your state requires the schools to be listed in a particular order to get state financial aid. These kinds of details can cost you a lot of money if you miss them!
My Income Is so Different From the Taxes I’m Using for FAFSA. What Can I Do?
Contact the school to explain your special circumstances. Sometimes the prior-prior year tax return is not an accurate representation of your finances. If this is the case, you’ll still fill out the FAFSA according to the directions.
However, you can then contact the schools your student is focusing on and let them know what your special circumstances are. They may be able to adjust their financial aid award before they send it out.
How Long Does it Take to Get My Student Aid Report (SAR)?
Within two weeks of filing your FAFSA online, you’ll receive an email with a link to the Student Aid Report. If you mailed a paper copy of the FAFSA, your SAR will arrive in the mail, which may take longer.
Make sure the financial information is correct, and look at the top right of the SAR to see your family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC.) You will also see a Data Release Number (DRN) that you can use to send the FAFSA information to additional schools if needed.
Don’t be alarmed if your SAR is marked for verification. This happens to about 30% of FAFSAs, and nothing is wrong. You will just have to provide additional documentation.
The data you will be asked to verify may vary, but it’s based on financial elements that are most prone to error or items that seem inconsistent. Examples include household size, number of students in college, adjusted gross income, or untaxed income items.
How Will We Know if My Student Is Eligible for Aid?
The SAR doesn’t tell you directly if you’re eligible for aid. Instead, the aid determination will be made by each school.
Each college or university will send you a financial aid award letter letting you know what aid they are offering to fill the gap between your EFC and need. It will also detail any merit aid that your student has won from the school.
Each school’s award letter will show the Cost of Attendance (COA) for the school, along with award amounts that may include:
- Federal loans (subsidized, unsubsidized and Parent PLUS)
- Work Study
Make sure you’re aware of each school’s deadlines for financial documentation and final decisions. There are federal, state, and individual school deadlines for the FAFSA and other financial information. Keep in mind that financial deadlines may be different than application deadlines!
The best thing to do is choose the earliest deadline and use that! Or, you can simply complete the FAFSA as close to Oct 1 as possible.
What Can We Do if The Aid Award Isn’t Enough?
Families often find that their full need isn’t met. Even if you do have a school meet your full need, you might find that your EFC is more than you have saved.
If you feel that you deserve a better award, you may want to appeal your financial aid award. Generally, you need to have a reason beyond “I wasn’t happy with this amount.”
Perhaps your financial situation has changed, or an error was made. Maybe self-employment income was overstated or expenses were missed. You may also want to appeal if a similar school gave a bigger award, but this institution is your student’s preferred destination.
Beyond an appeal, many families turn to private student loans or private parent loans. When you compare lenders, look for specific features. These include a variety of repayment terms, pre-qualification availability, the option to remove a cosigner from a private student loan, a choice of loan duration, and more.
For example, College Ave Student Loans works with borrowers to provide all of these features. You can choose from a variety of repayment options, starting during or after college, and can choose how many years to repay. In addition, there are options to remove a cosigner when certain qualifications are met, and you can use pre-qualification to understand what rates you might qualify for.
You can afford college. It starts with filling out the FAFSA, and from there you’ll know what your options are. There are generous schools that meet a high percentage of need. There are also school that are known for excellent merit aid.
It’s a journey, but you can do it!
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This post is sponsored by College Ave Student Loans.