College is expensive and many families need help paying for it. If you would like to be considered for financial aid next year, the first step is filing the 2016-17 Free Application for Financial Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is the application for federal scholarships, grants, work-study opportunities and loans. It is also used by many schools and state programs to determine eligibility for their financial aid programs. Here’s a guide to help you get started.
You should always file in time to meet your earliest deadline. Since that deadline will often be set by your school, check your college’s financial aid website for information. As a general rule, file as soon after January 1 as possible. Most employers, banks and financial institutions send the income information needed for tax returns by the end of January, but if your school has an earlier deadline, you and your parents (if you are financially dependent) can estimate income to be sure the form is turned in on time. The FAFSA is located at FAFSA.ed.gov.
If you are under 24, have been claimed on your parents’ income tax return in any of past three years, and are not in the military or married, you may be considered financially dependent and may need to include your parents’ information. If your parents are divorced or separated, check the FAFSA directions to determine which parent’s information should be included. Please note: students entering graduate school are automatically considered financially independent.
Before you file the FAFSA, both you and your parents, if applicable, will be required to obtain a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID this year, which replaces the PIN. The FSA ID is more secure since it includes a username and password instead of just an ID number. It provides access to the FAFSA and all federal aid information. You can obtain an FSA ID here before you file the FAFSA.
If you are applying to college for the first time, considering a transfer, or moving on to graduate school, you can send the FAFSA to multiple schools. You will not be considered for aid until you have applied and been accepted. Your state grant program may also require the FAFSA and a list of state grant codes. Their application deadlines are listed on the first page of the FAFSA overview. As with school deadlines, be sure to file early enough to meet your state grant deadline.
If this is your first FAFSA, you will complete a blank form. Although they are available in paper form if needed, most students and parents file electronically. The online FAFSA offers help features to guide applicants and electronic submission is faster. If you have filed a FAFSA before, you can use the renewal FAFSA process. After entering your FSA ID, your information will auto-fill if you have filed a FAFSA before, allowing you to update items which have changed.
FAFSA filers, including students and parents, will need W2s, income tax documents, bank statements, non-taxable income, investment documents, and other financial information. The FAFSA allows you to use an IRS Data Retrieval tool to obtain your income tax information. You will use your 2015 Income Tax information for the 2016-17 FAFSA.
Federal Student Aid (FSA) has comprehensive directions on their website, including help for filing the FAFSA. Your college financial aid office is also a good resource for any remaining questions.
Your information is used to calculate an Expected Financial Contribution (EFC), which is sent to you and your school. The EFC takes into consideration income, assets, the number of people in your family and more. You will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) approximately a week after filing your FAFSA. It will display your FAFSA information and your calculated EFC. If you notice errors or have other schools to add, you can make those changes on your SAR and return it. Your new information will be transmitted to the schools and state grant program, if listed. The EFC will be used by your school as they look at your financial aid eligibility. This does not mean that you will pay what the EFC indicates. It is a general guideline, but the rest of the financial picture will be determined when your school notifies you of your financial aid eligibility.
Be sure to check your college financial aid website to see if other forms are required for scholarships, grants, or institutional aid that they offer and respond to any requests for information they may send. If you have special circumstances or your financial situation has changed since last year, contact your financial aid office directly for guidance. Applying for financial aid might seem intimidating at first, but follow these steps and you should be able to navigate the process with ease.