Filling out the FAFSA is one of those tasks that’s easy to keep putting off. It’s boring, time-consuming and notoriously complicated – for students as well as parents.
But as many prospective college students have learned, ignoring it completely is bad news, and waiting too long to file is almost as bad. Just like a hefty research project, completing the FAFSA is a much smoother process when you start early.
To make things easier, here’s a rundown of what you need to file the FAFSA.
Why You Need to File a FAFSA
You don’t need to fill out the FAFSA to get into college, but it can certainly help with the cost of tuition. The FAFSA is the primary way in which students can qualify for financial aid and a required part of the federal student loan process.
The government uses the results from the FAFSA to decide how much financial aid you qualify for, also known as your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This is the annual amount they decide your family can afford to contribute to your college education.
Colleges deduct the EFC from the total tuition amount and try to fill the gaps with federal student loans, federal grants, and state grants. Many colleges and universities also use the FAFSA to decide if you qualify for need-based scholarships and grants.
Many schools won’t give out aid unless you’ve filled out the FAFSA, even for merit-based scholarships. That’s because most schools have a limited amount of aid they can distribute. If you qualify for need-based, government-funded aid like a Pell Grant, they might prefer to award you that over a merit-based scholarship funded by the university.
Some parents avoid filling out the FAFSA because it can be time-intensive, confusing and complicated. Many think they earn too much to qualify for any aid in the first place. That misconception causes millions of students to lose out on potential aid every year. Even if your parents say there’s no way you’ll receive need-based aid, tell them you still need the FAFSA for merit-based scholarships.
Beyond financial aid and merit-based scholarships, successfully completing the FAFSA is also a requirement to take out federal student loans. Federal loans have lower interest rates, better repayment options, and more forgiveness programs than private student loans.
If your particular state offers any grants or scholarships, the FAFSA you fill out will be sent there to determine eligibility. You can also have the FAFSA sent to the colleges you’re applying to.
You can list as many as 10 schools on the form. If you apply to more than 10 colleges, you’ll have to complete the process manually and contact the schools or call the Federal Student Aid Information Center directly.
The FAFSA is divided into two sections. The first section is completed by the student, and the second section is completed by their parents.
What Students Need to File the FAFSA
The student portion of the FAFSA is fairly simple. Most of the questions focus on demographics, like where you live, what kind of degree you’re working toward and if your parents attended college.
The only financial questions that a student needs to answer are about their earnings for the previous year and their financial assets, such as a savings account or any investments.
The questions on the FAFSA are also used to decide if you qualify as an independent student. An independent student does not have their parent’s income count towards their expected family contribution.
Many independent students can qualify for more aid because their incomes are lower than their parents. In general, it’s difficult to be registered as an independent student unless you’re 24 or older, married or in the military.
What Parents Need to File the FAFSA
The parent or guardian portion of the FAFSA is much more detail-oriented than the child portion. The questions are specific and ask for details such as your income, assets and what federal aid programs you received.
Filing the FAFSA can be confusing, especially figuring out which tax year you have to pull the information from. For the 2019-20 school year, you use the 2017 tax form, not the 2018.
This can be tricky for parents whose income changed significantly from 2017 to 2018. If your financial situation dramatically decreased between 2017 and 2018, fill out the FAFSA and then call the school financial aid department directly.
Parents that filed their taxes online can use their IRS account credentials to automatically fill in that information on the FAFSA. In 2018, the federal government launched myStudentAid, an app you can use to fill out the form.
When to File the FAFSA
The deadline for the FAFSA for the fall 2020 semester is June 30, 2020. The FAFSA form for that semester was available on October 1, 2018. That gives parents and students more than a year to file the form.
But that doesn’t mean you should dawdle. The sooner you fill out the FAFSA, the more financial aid you’ll get. Many college financial aid departments give out funds on a first-come, first-serve basis. It doesn’t matter how highly qualified you are – once the money is gone, it’s gone.
Every state has its own deadline for the FAFSA for any state-specific scholarships or grants. For example, the Tennessee state lottery scholarship has a FAFSA deadline of September 1, 2020, for the fall term. Other states have a March 1, 2020 deadline.
Why the FAFSA Needs to be Submitted Annually
The FAFSA needs to be filled out each year, so current college students need to have their parents help them submit it before each academic year. If your parent’s financial information has changed at all, the EFC will also change. For example, if your mom got a huge raise, then you may qualify for fewer grants. If one of your parents lost their job, you may receive more.
Your parents can also decrease their income and help you receive more aid by contributing more to their retirement accounts. That money doesn’t count as assets on the FAFSA.