A Guide to Understanding FAFSA

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College is hard, figuring out how to afford it can be even harder. There are some great financial aid options, but unfortunately, one thing they don’t teach you in school is how to find them. To relieve some of your student stress and learn more about federal financial aid, check out our tips on filing the FAFSA below.

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Completed either online or through mail, both prospective and current college students can fill out the FAFSA to apply for different forms of federal-sponsored financial aid.

What is federal financial aid?

There are three different types of federal financial aid: grants, loans and work-study permits. All are need-based and funded by the government, and nearly every student qualifies for at least one type.

  • Grants: Federal dollars that don’t need to be paid off later.
  • Loans: Sums of money from the government with a fixed interest rate.
  • Work-Study: A program where students can apply for part-time, on-campus jobs and get paid directly in money for tuition or other student expenses.

Who can apply?

Everyone – and everyone should apply! If you’re a prospective or current student attending an accredited college or university, that makes you potentially eligible for financial aid through FAFSA. While a moderate to high family income may make you think that filling out the FAFSA is waste of time, there is no income cutoff. It’s almost always worth your while to complete the form! In fact, experts say that at least 1.7 million students fail to file the FAFSA each year because they incorrectly assume that they are ineligible.

What do you need to fill out the FAFSA?

In order to become eligible for financial aid, the FAFSA requires you to share a lot of information about your family’s finances. To prepare, gather the following documents for you and your parents:

  • Social security numbers
  • Recent federal income tax returns, W-2s and additional financial information
  • Bank statements
  • A record of investments
  • A record of untaxed income (if applicable)

When is the deadline?

You can begin filling out the FAFSA on October 1 each year, while the federal cutoff is June 30. It’s recommended to apply early, though, because federal aid packages can sometimes be awarded on a first come, first serve basis. Additionally, application deadlines can vary based on school and state, so visit your school’s financial aid office or website to learn the specifics. It’s also important to note that you must reapply for financial aid through FAFSA each year that you are in school, updating any changes in family finances. So, essentially, apply a year before every new school year that you are requesting aid. After completing your form, the process turns into a bit of a waiting game. Students will typically receive any financial aid award letters in the early spring, on a rolling basis. Filing your FAFSA can seem like quite the feat, but with these guidelines the process becomes much more manageable. For more information about federal financial aid or to fill out your FAFSA, visit the official site here.

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