Have you heard of FAFSA?  If you're a college aged student I hope you have...  I didn't learn about it until I was a Junior in college and had already put 2.5 years of tuition and other college expenses on credit cards!  Yea, that's right.  I was applying for scholarships left and right through websites like Fast Web, but I was seeing little to no results.  Although I graduated high school with all AP classes, and a 4.1 GPA, I wasn't getting anything!  The only other avenue I knew of for financial aid was whatever my school awarded me... nothing. 

If you're new to college, or, like so many of my friends, have been in school for awhile but didn't know that financial aid was actually available to you, keep reading!

What is FAFSA?

The FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the first step in the financial aid process.  You use it to apply for federal student financial aid, such as grants, loans and work-study. In addition, most states and schools use information from the FAFSA to award non-federal aid.

Your FAFSA form contains a bunch of questions relating to your finances as well as those of your parents.  This form must be filled annually, preferably at the beginning of the year, right after filing your taxes.  FAFSA uses your tax information (if filing independently) and/or your parent's tax information (if filing as a dependent) to determine your family's financial strength, and thus your eligibility for financial Aid.

What is an EFC?

Your EFC is your Expected Family Contribution.  This is the number that through a series of calculations, the government estimates what you and/or family should be able to contribute to your college expenses.  Using your EFC, another series of calculations is done based on what the average cost of secondary education.  The number found is typically what you will be awarded in financial aid whether it be grants, scholarships, student loans or work-study.

What is a SAR?

A few days after submitting your FAFSA information, you will receive a SAR (Student Aid Report) via mail or via the Internet.  This report will show you all of the information you submitted on your FAFSA as well as tell you your EFC.  When you receive your SAR, it is important to review your information and make any corrections.  Even a small mistake can drastically change your EFC, and therefore change what aid your are eligible for.

How Much Do I Get and When Do I Get it?

Your EFC, along with the rest of your FAFSA information, is made available to all the schools you list in on your FAFSA form. The schools use your EFC to prepare a financial aid package to help you meet your financial need. Financial need is the difference between your EFC and your school’s cost of attendance (which can include living expenses), as determined by the school.

Any financial aid you are eligible to receive will be paid to you through your school. You can check your school's financial aid website to see what money you were awarded, and accept any awards you wish.  If you were given both grants and loans, but only wish to accept the grants, you can do so.  Typically, about 10 days before the start of the semester, your school will disperse your money.  They will first put your aid towards tuition, fees, and room and board (if provided by the school). Any remaining aid you accepted is then distributed to you - either by check or direct deposit -for your other expenses (textbooks, parking, etc.).  If you do not accept aid, it will not be dispersed to you once your expenses are paid, you are denying that money, and can not get it at a later semester in the school year.

Helpful Tips:

1.  Do your Taxes:
Filling out your tax return first will make completing the FAFSA easier. However, you do not need to submit your tax return to the IRS before you submit your FAFSA. But, once you (and/or your parents if you are a dependent student) file your tax return, you must correct any income or tax information that changed since you filed your FAFSA. Inaccurate information on your FAFSA may delay your receipt of federal student aid. Also, you will be required to return federal aid you improperly received based upon incorrect information.
2.  Apply Early
Deadlines for aid from your state, from your school, and from private sources tend to be much earlier than deadlines for federal aid. To make sure that any financial aid package your school offers you will contain aid from as many sources as possible, apply as soon as you can after January 1, 2006.
The U.S. Department of Education will process your 2006-2007 FAFSA if received on or before July 2, 2007. However, to actually receive aid, your school must have your correct, complete information before your last day of enrollment in the 2006-2007 school year. So it is important to apply early to make sure you leave enough time for your school to receive your information and to make any necessary corrections.
3.  File Electronically
You can fill out and submit your application through FAFSA on the Web at www.fafsa.ed.gov. Electronic filing is the fastest, easiest and most accurate way to apply for financial aid. The information you enter in FAFSA on the Web will be checked on the spot, and we will call your attention to any errors or missing information. This reduces the chance that you will need to correct your information later. Preventing errors means your school will receive your application results sooner. By filing online, you may also be able to skip some questions based on your answers to earlier questions.
If you have a U.S. Department of Education PIN (Personal Identification Number), you can even sign FAFSA on the Web electronically. To request a PIN, visit http://www.pin.ed.gov/. Your parents can also request and use their own PINs to sign your FAFSA online. We encourage you to apply for a PIN prior to submitting your FAFSA, but if you don’t we’ll automatically send you one once we have processed your application.
Free Money!  What's the Catch?

I love FAFSA, it has allowed me to get a college education, however, I do think they could do somethings differently when it comes to calculating EFC.  The forms essentially use information from your taxes to determine how much aid each student should receive.  This amount, however is determined almost entirely from taxes.

When I started school, it was not taken into account that my parents had a mortgage, and 4 car payments.  It did not take into account credit card debts, student loans, or other debts that we had.  It did not take into account regular expenses that we paid every month, and it did not take into account the fact that my parents had 3 kids entering college in the same year.  They really just looked my income, as well as my parents' incomes, and said, OK, here's what you can afford to pay!  The number they gave shocked us all.  There was no way in a hundred years that we had that much money just laying around.

I strongly recommend that if the student is under 23 years old, has a job, and will be filling out their own tax information, that they claim themselves independent.  Be sure to get your parent's permission to do this - they get a big tax break and more money back for having you as a dependent.  If the student files as independent, they will be awarded more financial aid that if they file jointly with their parent's information.  For any students older than 23 years old, you will have to file independently, even if you still live at home.  Once you reach 23 years old, your parents can no longer claim you as "dependent."

I hope this information is helpful and has given you another resource to receive money to help pay for school!  I know every semester, I am awarded almost 5x more than my actual expenses, so it really is a lifesaver.  Good luck!


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