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5 Things to Know About How Schools Use the FAFSA

Your FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is your gateway to all things financial aid. It can unlock access to federal student loans, as well as state and institution-based grants and scholarships. 

Let's take a look at how FAFSA works, and how you can get it to work for you. 


1. Every university can have a different number used to award student aid.

Generally, federal grants tend to help families with lower incomes, although other factors such as assets and number of children in college may affect qualification. But many schools accept a much higher income level when considering need-based aid. For instance, there are private schools where families earning over $100,000 can still qualify for need-based aid.

2. Schools can use the FAFSA in combination with info from other forms. 

Financial aid decisions, especially for scholarships, may require additional forms if there's a merit-based element. For instance, one component of the selection process may be income level and the other may be GPA or extracurricular activities. There may also be an essay or recommendation letter requirement. 

3. Some university grants and financial aid is first-come, first-serve. 

Certain forms of financial aid may be offered on a first-come, first-serve basis. The earlier you fill out the FAFSA and other required information, the more likely you are to get the grant money. Caution: sometimes the words grant and scholarships are interchangeable. When reviewing your financial aid award letter, you’ll need to ask the financial aid office if there are terms or conditions to receiving the university grant money.

4. Other calculation systems may be used instead of or in addition to information provided on the FAFSA.

Another popular system for schools to gather information on your financial status is the CSS financial aid PROFILE by the College Board. You fill in financial aid information the same way you would for the FAFSA. There is a fee to use PROFILE, but it’s waived for low-income students. Before filling out PROFILE, ask the financial aid office if the schools you're applying to use this system.

5. Regions can count.

While FAFSA doesn’t care whether your New York state income comes from NYC or Rochester, schools may care when it comes to determining your financial need.  After all, it’s generally more expensive to live in larger cities. You can find out if your income is viewed differently by calling the financial aid office of the school to which you're applying. It’s best if the student makes the call. Take that opportunity to ask about other potential scholarships.

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