On October 1, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (“FAFSA”) was made available for high school seniors and college students enrolling for Academic Year 2021-22. You read that right. Even though it feels like the school year just started, colleges are about to open their application and financial aid processes for next year. A key part of their evaluation for financial aid: the FAFSA.
It’s pretty simple: No FAFSA, no federal aid. No Federal Direct Student Loans. No Pell Grants. No Work-Study, or any other federal student aid program. Students must complete the FAFSA to be eligible for those federal aid programs.
TIP: Fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible. Some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis so getting the FAFSA in sooner rather than later is advisable.
Understand the Process and Who is Involved
The federal government and the colleges predominantly deal with students, not parents, in the college admission and financial aid processes. Be sure that filings are done using the student’s information, including their social security number and other required data. Information about parents should be provided only when specifically requested.
Here are the resources provided by the U.S Department of Education to help you better understand the FAFSA filing process:
Once the FAFSA is filed, the student will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), which will also be sent to colleges. The SAR will note the family’s Expected Family Contribution (“EFC”) – the calculation which estimates how much the government thinks a family should contribute to a student’s education. It is not the price of college or a final determination of what a particular college will cost a family. It is an index used to determine how much financial aid a student may be eligible to receive and consequently, how much a family may need to contribute after the aid package is awarded. If the EFC seems high, double-check inputs to be sure that there aren’t any errors. If errors are uncovered, correct them immediately and let the college know of the error.
Based on the SAR, the federal government determines financial need and allocates grants to students with financial need. Colleges also use the SAR to award their own need-based grants and scholarships, a.k.a. Institutional Awards.
Mobile App: The U.S. Department of Education launched myStudentAid, a mobile App for the FAFSA. You can find the myStudentAid App in the Apple Store (iOS) and at Google Play for Android.
IRS Data Retrieval Tool: Family income is a key factor in determining eligibility for federal financial aid. The FAFSA form requires information from a family’s tax returns that were filed two years before the Academic Year for which a student is seeking federal financial aid. Students filing for financial aid for the next Academic Year (2021-22) must use tax information from the tax year 2019. To make this easier, the Department of Education now has a link to those tax forms via the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.
Free EFC estimator: The FAFSA collects information about various aspects of the student’s and parents’ situation including, but not limited to their income and number of students attending college. The data is fed into a calculation that produces the family’s Expected Family Contribution (“EFC”) using a formula established by law. Most undergraduates are dependent students for this purpose and are required to report their parent’s income in addition to their own. If parents are separated or divorced, the custodial parent must provide their income data for FAFSA filing purposes. Use this free EFC Estimator to get an idea of your family’s Expected Family Contribution.
Do You Need to File the CSS Profile?
Some private colleges and universities also require students to file a second financial aid form known as the CSS Profile. For a fee, the College Board administers this process for colleges and universities. Like the FAFSA, the CSS Profile is available on October 1 and helps to determine a student’s eligibility for institutional financial need. You can learn more here about the CSS Profile and the colleges which require it.
Don’t Miss the Deadlines
Some colleges require the FAFSA and CSS Profile to be filed at about the same time that Early Decision or Early Action applications are due. Be sure you know the relevant deadlines well in advance. Missing financial aid deadlines, even by a day, will likely result in a student not being considered for aid.
Many states provide need-based grant programs to students with low income based on data provided on the FAFSA. While the federal FAFSA is available beginning October 1, not every state will not yet have their grant budgets passed for the 2021-2022 Academic Year. Be aware of any financial aid awards relying on estimates for state-based funding as they may be subject to change based on final state budget legislature.
One final note: Institutional Awards are funds reserved by the college and distributed based on their own internal criteria and methodology. Eligibility requirements and deadlines can vary from school to school. Make sure to identify any deadlines for institutional funding to stay ahead of the curve. The simplest way to achieve this is by making sure all financial aid forms are completed and submitted in advance of any deadlines.
The Last Word
The financial aid process requires families to file information in order to receive financial aid. Some families decide not to participate in the process for a variety of reasons. Despite the inconvenience of the filing process, families are best advised to file the required forms. Why not ensure students have access to all of the federal aid for which they are eligible?