College financial aid 101 part I: Filling out a FAFSA

For parents with students looking to enroll in college this fall, one elephant in the room is affording massive tuition bills. Despite ever spiraling cost, there is still considerable aid available to students and parents, both through government and private sources. The first step toward tapping these sources of financial aid is through going online and filling out a FAFSA form (which can be accessed here).

What is FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  The basic idea is that the families of students fill out the form using information on their income and savings to determine how much they can reasonably afford to pay for college. Costs above that amount are eligible to be filled by aid – both grants and loans.

Sounds good, when is it due?

Each year’s FAFSA goes online on Jan. 1, and the final due date at the federal level is June 30, for students who intend to enroll in the fall term. States have their own deadlines for state-specific funding, which can be found here. Individual colleges and universities have their own specific deadlines for internal aid as well. Check with schools that you or your child is applying to for more precise information. A good rule of thumb is to fill out a FAFSA form when you finalize your college applications.

Yikes, we’d better get cracking on that. How do we apply?

Go here to access the online form. You should have your own tax forms from the previous year and records of your financial savings (both students and parents for students relying on their parents). The idea is to give the federal government a clear picture of your financial means and liabilities to provide an accurate picture of how much you can afford to pay for college.

What happens if our financial situation changes between filling out the FAFSA and the start of classes?

No problem – the Feds get that situations change and that sometimes we make clerical mistakes. Simply file an amended FAFSA by  September 1 to sort everything out.

What do I gain from filling it out?

Filing a FAFSA serves as an automatic application for Federal Pell grants, which provide up to $5,300 annually for low-income students to attend federally recognized, accredited higher education programs.  FAFSA also allows students to access federal work-study monies, which allow for students to pay for tuition and other expenses through a federally subsidized on-campus job. Loans are less desirable than grants, but certain loans, like federal Stafford loans or Perkins loans tend to have subsidized interest rates, which makes repayment less of a financial burden.

Finally, sending in a FAFSA form also opens the vault to other financial aid sources based at specific universities. Often colleges and universities will provide grants and loans helping an admitted student meet 100 percent of their financial needs, as Rice University and others do locally.