Between the essays and interviews required in the college admissions process, the last thing you want to do is fill out another form. But there's one very important application you shouldn't miss: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Figuring out the financial part of attending college is not the most-fun or the easiest task, but it's a critical one if you want to avoid being saddled with debt after you graduate. So we asked a financial aid administrator in the Philadelphia area, to fill us in on the most common misconceptions people have when applying for financial aid for the first time.
Here's what you need to know:
1. Everyone can and should apply for aid
As the name suggests, the FAFSA is free. So there's no reason to skip it.
"First-time applicants should know that it truly does not hurt to apply, even if it may seem like a lot of work," they said. In addition to need-based aid, he points out that there are "so many varying forms of aid that students may not know about until they apply."
For instance, many schools use the FAFSA to determine institution-based aid. So even if you don't qualify for federal aid, skipping the FAFSA may mean leaving other kinds of aid money on the table.
The FAFSA is notorious for being confusing, especially when it comes to filling out financial info.
"For example, students applying for financial aid for the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, the tax year with which the FAFSA will assess their need is 2018," they said. So that means that if you're getting ready to apply for the next school year, the info you need to supply is for the last tax year.
If you want to save time and effort, FAFSA offers an option to use what's called the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. This tool collects parents’ and/or students’ tax figures and pre-fills them into the FAFSA. "This helps to mitigate errors."
Also? It can save you a ton of time.
3. The deadlines are critical
One of the biggest things to remember as a first-time financial aid applicant is to meet all the required deadlines. Otherwise, you could miss out on money you'd otherwise be qualified to receive.
"Students may be applying for many schools at once, each with their own set of requirements and deadlines, not only for admission, but separately perhaps for financial aid as well," they said. "Many colleges and even the Department of Education, as well as state financial aid funding agencies, base their budgets for financial aid funding around these deadlines and may run out of this funding after so much time, so it is important to pay very careful attention to all deadlines, as tedious as it may be."
You can check the state and federal deadlines for financial aid at fafsa.ed.gov/deadlines.htm. Don't forget to check with the schools you're applying to as well.
Make sticky notes, add calendar reminders on your phone or laptop, or add dates to your college app checklist — whatever you can do to make sure you get your applications in on time.
4. There is help available, and you should use it
"The financial aid process can certainly appear daunting, particularly for those students who are either the first in their family to attend or first of their siblings to attend".
But even if you're the first in your family to attend college (congratulations, by the way!), high school counselors and your choice-school's financial aid advisors are able to help you through the financial aid application process. "Financial aid staff at colleges work with counselors all the time in helping students apply and understand their financial aid packages after receipt."
And yes, your parents can also help even if they don't have experience with FAFSA. "Parents are crucial in this process as the FAFSA requires their information in order to be processed," they saidys.
But for students who don't have access to parent information or who no longer have contact with their parents, it's even more important to be in contract with colleges of choice directly to find out how to navigate the application process.
5. Higher-cost schools don't have to be out of reach
Have the grades to attend an out-of-state private school but worried that it will be too cost-prohibitive? This is a common mistake. "The fact is, many of the best colleges in the country offer need-based financial aid, or even a combination of need-based with merit- (or academic performance-) based financial aid packages. This might mean that a higher cost school could actually be affordable, particularly to a low-income family".
Don't forget that while the FAFSA is the most widely used application that colleges use to offer students financial aid packages, some schools also require other items such as the College Board CSS Profile application and perhaps copies of parents' tax documents.
6. Know which aid needs to be paid back and which is free money
Financial aid packages vary by school, which means they're sometimes confusing to navigate and understand. One of the most important things for families to understand when a student receives a financial aid award letter from a college is the difference between aid that does not have to be repaid and aid that you'll need to repay.
"There are all types of financial aid, though the common perception is that financial aid is mostly scholarships and grants only," they said. "Scholarships and grants are generally free money against the cost, whereas loans are to be repaid, and work-study is usually an earning potential that does not come out of the cost due to the college." That is, work-study funds are earned throughout the semester, so you probably can't use them to pay tuition at the beginning of a semester. Work-study is also typically contingent upon availability of jobs and work hours, your skills, and school funding.
Another very important part of each award letter, which may not be obvious, is the financial aid gap. This happens when there's a difference between your financial aid package and the total cost of attending the school.
Most colleges today ask students to reapply for financial aid each year in an effort to try to meet students and their families in their most recent financial circumstances. So it's not necessarily a one-time application.
As for the FAFSA, you'll need to reapply for that every school year. The good news is: Once you've done it one time, it gets easier and quicker.
Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. Her work has appeared in BBC Future, CityLab, Columbia Journalism Review, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, Teen Vogue and other publications. She enjoys traveling, playing with makeup, biking and trying new food. Follow her @JulissaTrevino. Read more by Julissa Treviño