What You Need to Know about the FAFSA

I remember being shocked at the price of diapers when my kids were little. But when it came time to figure out college tuition…

Criminy. Kids are crazy-expensive!

Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate the sticker price on a college education. Federal financial aid is one of the methods we have to help afford the mind-boggling costs we’re up against, and the infamous FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the key to unlocking that.

I’ll explain what the FAFSA is, what it provides and why it’s so important. AND…why you should always, definitely complete and submit the FAFSA form (even if you think you make too much money to qualify).

What is the FAFSA?

The sole purpose of the FAFSA is to determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is the amount the government believes your family can chip in for college that year. The EFC qualifies students for federal financial aid, including:

  • grants and scholarships (which you don’t have to pay back)
  • work-study jobs (part time work your teen does, typically on campus)
  • loans (paid back after graduation)

The EFC is also one of the main factors used by colleges to determine how much your family can pay relative to the cost of the school and what that college will contribute to your family’s financial aid package.

In fact, you can figure out a good estimate of what your EFC will be by using one of the many calculators available online. Try out the College Board’s EFC Calculator if you’re curious.

Where can I find it?

Thankfully, the form is online now – I remember the green FAFSA forms I used to have to hunt down from the financial aid office every year back in the day.

Go to www.fafsa.gov to complete the FAFSA. To make things even easier, you’re able to import your tax information directly from the IRS website. Oh, how I love that it’s 2020.

Submit the form. No matter what.

Many families think that their household income is too high, so they won’t qualify for financial aid. Not true. There’s no income cut-off that disqualifies a family from aid, so not completing the form essentially means you’re likely leaving money on the table.

Other factors, such as the number of students in your household who are attending college at the same time, will affect your eligibility for aid. And even if you don’t qualify for federal grants, the unsubsidized Stafford loan and the PLUS loan are available without financial need. You can be rolling in the dough and still qualify for these loans.

Seriously, moms and dads. Complete the form.

Complete the FAFSA early.

For the 2020-21 school year, the FAFSA was released on January 1, 2020, and should be completed asap; the start of the financial aid season is when there’s generally more money available to give away.

The ultimate deadline for submitting the FAFSA for the 2020-2021 award year is June 30, 2021. But I absolutely, 100% recommend you complete that much earlier – many states and colleges have earlier deadlines for applying for their state and college financial aid.

Check out each state’s deadlines and contact each college directly to find out when their deadlines are.

Know how to list colleges on the FAFSA in the right order.

FAFSA results will be forwarded to your state for financial aid consideration. Some states require that your teen list an in-state public college first on the FAFSA’s college list in order to qualify for state financial aid.

Again, repeating for emphasis – make sure that state college is listed first!

Check out the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ State Financial Aid Programs page for more information about what grants and/or scholarships your state offers and how to apply for them.

What happens after it’s submitted?

You’ll receive a link to a document called the Student Aid Report (SAR) via email within 3 to 5 days after submitting it online, which will show your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The schools that you listed on the FAFSA will have access to this information within one day after it’s processed.

You won’t actually see how much financial aid you’ll receive on the SAR; that information will come from the colleges that you listed on your FAFSA. They’ll calculate your aid and send you an award letter to let you know how much aid you’re eligible to receive from their particular school, as this varies between institutions.

Appeal financial aid packages if necessary.

The FAFSA doesn’t cover every detail about your income and expenses, so make sure you connect with the financial aid office if there are other circumstances to consider. This could include things like a parent losing a job, a divorce or separation, medical expenses or a disabled sibling or parent. Think about hardships that may interfere with how much you can reasonably pay.

Additionally, if other colleges have offered your teen better financial aid packages, you could potentially use that information as leverage to negotiate for higher scholarships or merit aid at another college. Just don’t use the word “negotiate” – it’s distasteful and no one likes a pushy parent. Simply ask if anything else can be done to further compensate based on merit. See the financial aid folks as partners, not adversaries.

Now don’t forget – the FAFSA is only one piece of the financial aid puzzle. Make sure your teen is applying for scholarships, as well. And check out my article on 4 easy ways to find scholarships – they’re out there for everyone!

Let’s continue the discussion! Thoughts on this post? Please leave a comment below!

4 Easy Ways to Find Scholarships

Scholarships aren’t just for athletes and smarty-pants kids anymore. There are thousands of scholarships out there that you didn’t even know existed.

Honestly, and I’m not making this up:Is your kid tall? Awesome. Hopefully your family lives in Phoenix – that would make your teen eligible for the $250 CATS Tall Club Scholarship.

Knows how to attract water fowl? Sweet. They’re giving out $2,000 in scholarships for the Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Duck Calling Contest.

Ready to take on a hoard of zombies? The Unigo Zombie Apocalypse Scholarship is the one to go for: one successful survivor will get a scholarship worth $2,000.

Ok, so those are some particularly bizarre examples. Let’s figure out which scholarships your high schooler is eligible for – outlandish or otherwise. I promise they’re out there.

Scholarship Search Engines

Have your teen plug in characteristics about themselves into the following search engines, and then you’re cooking with gas. These are my two preferred tools for students to use, because they keep information private and the scholarships are updated regularly:

BigFuture Scholarship Search: The College Board hosts this resource for high school kids – the same folks who create the PSAT and SAT exams. Awesome tool.

Fastweb: This one’s been around since 1995 and has 1.5 million in scholarships worth $3.4 billion available. Definitely a great resource.

College-Specific Scholarships

Your teen should connect with the financial aid offices for prospective colleges – they’ve got the best gauge for funds there. In fact, a friend of mine worked as an aid in her college’s financial aid office back in the day and saw scholarships that no one even applied for. Students who ask directly win those if they’re eligible! And don’t forget to ask the high school guidance counselor.

Community & Employers

An amazing resource for scholarships could be as close as your social circles.If you’re part of a religious community, ask about local, regional or even national scholarships for denominational eligibility. Your very own employers might offer scholarships for children of employees – lots do that. Local Rotary, Elks, Eagles and Lions clubs tend to have scholarships, too. Also, it sounds archaic, but check the local newspaper, too. Ask, ask, ask!

Hot Tip #1: Before you sign up for any of the scholarship search engines, make sure your teen signs up for a separate email address to use solely for college planning purposes. Because, honestly – they’re going to hate the amount of email that’s about to come flooding in.

Hot Tip #2: Never pay for scholarship search services. Don’t trade money for money – it’s likely a scam.

What scholarships are you finding that your teen’s eligible for? Where are you looking? Leave a comment below!