Wouldn’t it be great to pay your way through college with scholarships and graduate debt-free? Sure it would. But, this scenario is more fantasy than reality for most students. To cope with the reality that your future college bills will likely outweigh your income and assets, you’ll need a solid financial plan, and that plan starts with filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Meet the FAFSA
Every college-bound student should complete the FAFSA. Your answers to questions about your income and assets (and your parents’ income and assets) will determine your Expected Family Contribution—the annual amount that the government expects you and your parent(s) to be able to pay toward your college education. If your college costs (Cost of Attendance, or COA) exceed your calculated EFC, you’ll be eligible for need-based loans and/or grants to help pay your college bills.
You should file the FAFSA even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for need-based aid. If you want to take out a federal loan of any type—including the unsubsidized Stafford Loan, which isn’t based on financial need—then you’ll need to file the FAFSA.
You can file your FAFSA as early as January 1 of the year you intend to enter school, and you’ll have to repeat the process each year as you pursue your education. The earlier you get started, the better; not only will you feel better that you’ve got this crucial step checked off your to-do list, but you’ll be at the head of the line for many of the first-come, first-served aid programs.
What You’ll Need
The more organized you are, the easier you’ll find the FAFSA process to be. Here are some of the key pieces of information and documents you’ll need:
- Social Security number
- Driver’s license (if available)
- Your tax forms (don’t worry if they aren’t complete yet—you can use estimated numbers now and adjust them later if needed)
- Your parents’ tax forms (again, using estimated figures is OK for now)
- Records of untaxed income, such as payments to tax-deferred savings plans, child support, veterans benefits, or workers’ compensation
- Current bank statements
- Information about any businesses you or your family own, investment mortgage information, business and farm records, and other investment records
Three Steps for Faster Response
1. The fastest way to file your FAFSA is online at www.fafsa.ed.gov
2. You can speed the processing of your FAFSA by signing the form electronically with a Personal Identification Number (PIN). You don’t have to wait until January 1 to request a PIN, so get this step out of the way early! If you’re a dependent student, one parent must also register for a PIN in order to sign the FAFSA electronically. Learn more at www.pin.ed.gov.
3. Get organized with the FAFSA on the Web worksheet, available at www.fafsa.ed.gov. This form helps you gather all the information you’ll need so that you’re ready to complete the FAFSA January 1.
After you file your FAFSA, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that contains your EFC. If you provided a valid e-mail address as part of your FAFSA information, then you’ll receive your SAR by e-mail, or you can view it online. You can also elect to receive a paper copy of your SAR by mail. Your SAR and EFC will be sent to the schools you indicated on your FAFSA, and these schools will offer you financial aid packages based on this data.