It’s no secret: College is expensive. While preparing for these costs can begin early with savings plans, many students can still benefit from federal loans, scholarships and other aid money.
In order to qualify for college aid, it’s imperative for high school seniors to fill out the United States government’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid – better known as FAFSA.
Here’s a guide to walk you through how to get financial aid for college through FAFSA.
What is FAFSA?
This application uses your household financial information to determine the amount of money and kind of aid for which your dependent child qualifies.
FAFSA information applies to federal student loans, money lent by the government that will have to be repaid, as well as grants and scholarships that may come from the college your student plans to attend – which is money that doesn’t need to be repaid.
If you’re the parent of a college-bound student, your role is vital in getting your student’s FAFSA completed, since the application requires your financial information.
When there’s a lack of parental involvement in this area, it can cause a “roadblock” for students, says Enid Johnson, a former guidance counselor with Cass Technical High School in Detroit.
How to apply for FAFSA
In order to fill out FAFSA with your child, just about all you need is your most recent tax return information, says Gabriela Garfield, the former director of application support in the computer and information technology department, and former interim senior director of student financial aid at Wayne State University in Detroit.
“The parent is responsible for completing the FAFSA with his or her child,” Garfield says, noting this is because there is a lot of sensitive personal information involved, such as Social Security numbers.
You can fill out FAFSA online, or you can mail it by printing out the PDF on the FAFSA website and filling it in by hand. You can also call 800-4FEDAID (433-3243) or 319-337-5665 to request a paper version.
Garfield adds that when you go to the FAFSA website to begin filling out your new form online, you’ll be shown a list of items you’ll need to complete it.
Tax return considerations
Since tax returns are a big necessity in filling out FAFSA, Garfield recommends to “try to get your tax return completed in January or February.” This will give students an ample amount of time to meet government, state and college filing deadlines.
Students applying for the 2019-20 school year can start filling out FAFSA as early as Oct. 1, 2018, notes FAFSA.
Students also are required to use the previous year’s tax returns, meaning parents don’t have to rush to get their tax returns done in January or February.
For many colleges, the deadlines to consider a student’s eligibility for institutional aid is March 1, Garfield adds, so it’s key to fill out FAFSA early to be considered for the most aid.
If you file your taxes electronically, in about three weeks, families can use the Internal Revenue Service’s data retrieval tool, which automatically transfers your information from the IRS to your FAFSA form, Garfield says.
You also can use this tool if you filed via mail, but it will take roughly eight weeks to get the info, FAFSA’s website notes.
But “don’t delay filing a FAFSA because your taxes aren’t completed,” she adds. You can get started without the returns by filling it out with estimated financial aid information and retuning to update it once you have your tax returns, Garfield notes, stressing the importance of meeting deadlines.
Time is of the essence
Students should fill out FAFSA regardless of if they’ve heard back from the colleges to which they applied.
They can select the FAFSA to be sent to the colleges before they hear back, and even before they apply, Garfield notes. Families can even start filling out FAFSA, save it and come back to it later if necessary.
Garfield says families sometimes don’t think they’re going to qualify for financial aid and won’t fill it out – but they’re also “not prepared for the total cost” of college.
“It’s always good to file the FAFSA upfront, whether or not you believe you’re going to qualify,” she says.
It is especially important for students to file their FAFSA as early as possible in 2020 because the coronavirus pandemic is expected to cause an increased need for financial support.
The new FAFSA form was released on October 1, 2020 and Christine Roberts, a student lending expert with Citizens Bank says it’s important that students file as close to that date as they can as there may be additional steps required due to a family’s changing income.
Before students start college, Garfield recommends parents sit down with their kids and budget.
Figure out the cost of more than just tuition and books, she says, suggesting, if your student is going to school out-of-state, how much will it cost to move her out there or for her to commute home?
Students and parents should talk about their cost of living in college and what their child’s necessities will be, she advises.
Parents with kids entering and starting college will receive a lot of reading material from the financial aid and admissions offices.
“Be prepared to read everything you receive,” Garfield says, noting that a lot of times, answers to frequently asked questions are included – as well as information you need to know.
And if the school your child plans on attending offers her money, check to see how much it is in comparison with the cost of attendance, she notes. As an example, if a private school offers your child $20,000 per year but the tuition is about $40,000 a year, evaluate if you can afford the remaining charges.
FAFSA application deadlines
Garfield says students technically have a year to file FAFSA. So for the 2020-21 school year, it will be available Oct. 1, 2020 and the deadline will be June 30, 2021.
Michigan also has a deadline for submitting FAFSA, which Garfield says the state uses to project the number of students who qualify for these sorts of funds. Heads up: It’s earlier than the federal deadline. To check Michigan’s deadline, visit the FAFSA website, click “deadlines” and select “Michigan.”
Your students’ future school might have a deadline set, so it can assess who qualifies for their institutional aid. Garfield says it’s usually in March. To find out the exact deadline, reach out to the school your child plans on attending.
Where to get help
If you’re having trouble filling out your FAFSA or need a helping hand, free resources are available.
The FAFSA website has answers to frequently asked questions. While you’re filling out FAFSA, you’ll also see the “help and hints” box on the right side of the page. This website also gives you the ability to live chat with customer service by clicking the “help” icon. You can call 1-800-4FEDAID (433-3243) or 319-337-5665 for help via phone.
Check your child’s high school
You can check with your child’s high school to see if it offers assistance or resources. Some schools have specific days for parents to come in and get help.
Call or visit the college
The financial aid office of the college your child is planning to attend also can help answer questions you may have about your students’ financial aid.
Websites to visit
The following websites are important resources you’ll need to know about when preparing to fill out FAFSA.
This where you’ll fill out your FAFSA if you plan to do so online – and find out about your filing deadlines and filing options. You also can visit its “help” page, where you’ll get answers to frequently asked questions, as well as the Federal Student Aid Information Center’s contact information.
Sign up for your Federal Student Aid ID by filling out an application. You’ll need this username and password to electronically sign your FAFSA and access your records.
Get the answers to all your financial aid questions, including what materials you need to fill out FAFSA, how financial aid is determined, what kind of aid is available, how to accept your aid, how loan repayment works and more.
This post was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.