The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form that current and future college students need to fill out each year. The FAFSA determines individual eligibility for student financial aid and unsubsidized federal loans, so it’s incredibly important for any student looking to reduce the price tag on their college education.
This year’s FAFSA opens on October 1. Here’s what you need to know – why it’s important, how to fill it out and what problems you could run into along the way.
Why You Should File the FAFSA Quickly
The FAFSA is open starting October 1, 2020, and technically isn’t due until June 30, 2022. However, students should submit the FAFSA as soon as possible, even if they haven’t finished applying to college yet. Many universities require that students fill out the FAFSA to be eligible for their scholarships and grants.
Many of these have a limited amount of funds, so waiting to fill out the FAFSA may cause you to lose out on opportunities you would have been eligible for. In general, you should try to submit the FAFSA within three months. Some reports say that students who file within three months receive double the amount of grants compared to students who wait.
Filling out the FAFSA quickly also helps you become eligible for more state scholarships and federal work-study options. For any families hit particularly hard by this year’s economic downturn, these extra funding options could make a huge difference.
Many states offer their own scholarships for students who attend in-state universities, but some of these have a limited amount of money available.
“While it can take a few months for the state grant funding to be depleted, it is better to not procrastinate,” said Mark Kantrowitz of SavingforCollege.com.
Students who live in one of the following states and are attending an in-state school should file quickly to be eligible for state grants:
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
You should also file the FAFSA as soon as possible in case there are any errors or mistakes. If your FAFSA is rejected because of a mistake, you’ll have to go back and correct it.
“Theoretically, you get the priority of the original submission, but in practice, you might miss out on the state grants,” Kantrowitz said.
Federal student loans are unlimited, so any eligible student who applies by the deadline will receive loan funding.
Create an FSA ID
To fill out the FAFSA, you need to create a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. This ID can also be used to look at your student loan information.
If you’ve filled out the FAFSA before, then you already have an FSA ID. Both students and parents will have their own separate FSA ID, and both will have to electronically sign the FAFSA with their FSA IDs.
If you or your parents forgot the FSA ID and can’t retrieve it online, you’ll have to reset the username and password. You may have to call the Federal Student Aid Information Center to recover the account.
Once you have the FSA ID, store it somewhere safe like the LastPass browser extension. This will encrypt the username and password and store it until next year, or when you’re making your first student loan payment.
Assemble the Necessary Documents
If you’re new to filling out the FAFSA, you should have certain information handy before you sit down.
- Your Social Security Number
- Your parent’s Social Security Number
- Your parent’s tax return information
- Other relevant financial information such as any investments, 529 accounts, trust funds, and more
The FAFSA also offers an IRS retrieval data feature that can pull information directly from your parent’s tax return. This will greatly simplify the process and minimize mistakes since the numbers are taken from a submitted and approved tax return.
If you’ve filled out the FAFSA before, you can often copy and paste some information from previous years. If you’re filling it out for the first time, remember to store any relevant information in a secure physical or digital location to pull from next year.
Ask for Help
If parents and students are having trouble filling out the FAFSA, they can contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC). Their phone number is 1-800-4-FED-AID, and the email address is FederalStudentAidCustomerService@ed.gov.
They can also visit FormYourFuture.org, a website that compiles FAFSA resources from each state. If you’re a senior in high school, the school guidance counselor may also be able to provide relevant information and guidance for filling it out. Students already in college can ask for help from their school’s financial aid office.
Get Support from Your Parents
Sometimes parents can be difficult about filling out the FAFSA. They may think that completing it means they’ll have to take out loans or cosign on federal loans.
“A college financial aid administrator might be able to help by explaining that completing the FAFSA does not obligate them to pay for college or to borrow,” Kantrowitz said.
If your parents still don’t want to help you fill out the FAFSA and also don’t plan to provide financial assistance, you can try to file the FAFSA as an independent student. Kantrowitz said this is difficult to do unless you meet one of the following criteria:
- You’re currently homeless or living with someone else besides your parent or guardian
- You’re living in an unsafe home environment or have been abandoned by your parents
- Your parents are currently incarcerated or institutionalized.
“Students in such a situation should contact the college financial aid administrator,” he said. “Letters from school counselors, teachers, social workers, police, clergy, etc. can help a lot. If the student is living with the parents of a classmate, a letter from them can also help.
If your parents won’t provide their financial information, you should still fill out the FAFSA. You won’t be eligible for federal or state grants, but you’ll still qualify for unsubsidized federal loans that have lower interest rates, better repayment options, and more deferment and forbearance programs than private loans.