The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the first place that millions of families go when they want help paying for college. A recent survey by Barnes & Noble College on behalf of College Ave Student Loans found that 89% of parents of undergraduate students filled out the FAFSA for the 2021-2022 school year.
It’s the 10-page form that everyone who wants help from the federal government must fill out. Some states and colleges also give state and college aid through the FAFSA. It’s also the main way that more than 10 million students go to college every year.
Erin Powers, a spokesperson for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, says that financial aid can cut the cost of college by a lot. “The FAFSA is the first step in getting help.”
Since so much is at stake, there’s no doubt that filling it out can be stressful. If you make a mistake, your financial aid offer could be delayed, and you could lose thousands of dollars that would have helped pay for college. What’s good? By getting ready for the FAFSA ahead of time, these risks can be greatly reduced. This is how:
1. Get your Federal Student Aid ID as soon as possible.
Each year, the FAFSA application period starts on October 1, but you don’t have to wait until then to make a Federal Student Aid ID. Your username and password make up your ID. When you apply for federal financial aid online, your username and password are used to verify your identity.
Powers says that if you have this ID, your application will be processed faster. It is also the only way to get to your information online or change it. Mark Kantrowitz, Publisher and VP of Research at Savingforcollege.com, suggests that both the parent and the child get their own FSA IDs.
This is because many student loan applications need information about the parent on the FAFSA. Kantrowitz says that parents often make mistakes when they set up an FSA ID for their child. “Students and parents are much less likely to make mistakes if they each have their own FSA ID.”
2. AVOID COMMON MISTAKES
The last thing you want to do is make a mistake on the FAFSA. That could make your application take longer and could change how much money you can get. Start by learning about common mistakes to avoid making costly ones. The Internet has a lot of information, but the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators keeps a list of the most important ones.
Among them are:
- Leaving application fields blank
- Using commas or decimal places in fields with numbers
- Giving a wrong driver’s license number or Social Security number
- Putting in the wrong tax and adjusted gross income information (AGI)
- Not mentioning the college(s) you want to go to
3. Get your finances in order to get the most help.
The federal government will give you less need-based aid if your family makes more money. Before you fill out the application, it’s important not to do anything that could make your income look wrong. The FAFSA looks at your income from the year before, so if you want help for the 2023-2024 school year, you’ll need to show income from 2021. Kantrowitz says, “You don’t want to make your income look bigger than it is, because then you’ll get less help.” This means that you shouldn’t sell stocks for a profit, use stock options, or take money out of a retirement plan during the time when the income will be counted. “If you have money in the bank and credit card debt, use that money to pay off your credit card debt and get rid of that money,” he says.
Also, be sure to take any offers of financial aid seriously. Not everything you read on paper gives you a good idea of how much you’ll have to pay for your child’s education. The College Ave survey found that 74% of parents said their child got a letter about financial aid last year. Over half of those people, or 59%, said they got less than they had hoped.
If you’re thinking about getting a loan to help pay for college and want to see how private student loans can help fill in any gaps, it’s important to look around for the best deals. Students can use College Ave Student Loans to look for things like the most flexible payment plans and the best rates.
4. GET YOUR DOCUMENTS AND DEADLINES IN ORDER
In recent years, it has become easier to fill out the FAFSA thanks to a mobile app and the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which lets you import tax data directly from the IRS (IRS DRT). That means you don’t have to enter your income and tax information by hand, which can prevent some big mistakes. But you should also have some other papers ready. When getting ready to fill out the FAFSA, you’ll need the following:
- Your driver’s license and Social Security number
- Forms W-2 from two years ago
- A record of income that wasn’t taxed from the past two years
- Proof of money from grants, scholarships, or work-study programs
It’s also important to know when your application needs to be done. Powers of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators said, “Many states and colleges have priority deadlines by which you must turn in the FAFSA form to be considered for the aid programs they run.” So, it’s important to remember the FAFSA deadlines for your area.
5. DON’T PAY FOR HELP
The FAFSA is a free application that may seem hard to fill out, but it has gotten much easier to fill out over the years. Even so, companies are still trying to sell you paid services to help you fill out the application. Kantrowitz says it’s a waste of money and something everyone should avoid doing, even though it’s tempting. “Don’t pay anyone to fill out the FAFSA for you. It’s very easy to do,” he says, adding that the person you’re paying to fill it out still needs you to give them all the information they need. “You won’t save any time by doing it.”
Experts say you should talk to the financial aid administrator at the college you want to attend if your family’s income has changed recently. This could be because of high medical bills from an illness or injury that came out of nowhere, or because you lost your job. You might also be able to give extra information that will increase the amount of financial aid you get. Kantrowitz says that you should file an appeal if something out of the ordinary affects your ability to pay for college. “Usually, it’s better to do something sooner than later. Early on in the financial aid process, colleges have more money to spend.
Your first stop will always be the FAFSA.
Even though 89% of parents have said they filled out the FAFSA, it would be best if that number was 100%. It’s often called the “gateway” to all kinds of financial aid, since many scholarships require you to fill out the FAFSA before they’ll even look at your application.
There are a lot of things to think about and things that can go wrong when applying to college, but the FAFSA doesn’t have to be one of them. Students and parents should do a little work ahead of time to make sure everything goes smoothly when it’s time to turn in work.