It happens every year. Thousands of students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, expecting free cash. Then they wince when they receive their Student Aid Report in return.
The reports state whether students are eligible for federal Pell grants. They can make or break a family's plan for paying for college. If your report isn't exactly what you'd hoped for, don't worry. This primer should help you understand these reports and their impact.
It's only part of your aid package"The Student Aid Report only tells you whether you're eligible for federal need-based grants," says Katy Maloney, interim director of financial aid at the University of California, Davis. "If you're not qualified, there are still other grants and loans."
Maloney says that the Student Aid Report provides students with two crucial pieces of information -- their federal Pell grant eligibility and their family's expected contribution. The majority of students won't qualify for a Pell grant, but they will still be eligible for federal and private loans, grants and scholarships from their college and community organizations as well as federal work-study positions.
Students will receive a letter from their school outlining their financial aid package in late-March to mid-April. Maloney says that students can get an estimate of their school's aid offer by looking at the expected family contribution.
"If (students) see an expected family contribution that exceeds the cost of their university, that means they won't be eligible for any need-based aid," says Maloney. "They could qualify for loans or merit-based scholarships."
It's not over yetStudents who receive their Student Aid Report shouldn't relax yet. Qualifying for school-sponsored scholarships and grants may require more paperwork.
In addition to filling out the FAFSA, some schools require students to complete an additional aid form called the College Scholarship Service, or CSS, Profile to qualify for aid, says Phyllis Hooyman, director of financial aid at Hope College in Holland, Mich.
Assessing factors like home equity not included on the FAFSA, the CSS Profile should be filed as soon as the student receives his or her Student Aid Report, says Hooyman.
According to the New York-based College Board, CSS Profiles cost $9 to complete and $16 for each college to which you want information sent. It's available from the College Board.
Watch for errorsOne of the primary reasons the government sends out the Student Aid Report is to catch mistakes, says Phil Bovenizer, associate director of financial aid for Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio.
"Sometimes families will fill in their FAFSA with incomplete or estimated income information to meet the early deadlines that schools have," he says. "That's fine, but if they've gotten their income tax returns back and the information is different from the estimates, they need to change that."
Families can edit their financial information online at the FAFSA Web site and should receive an updated aid report within 48 hours. Families that severely overestimated their income could become eligible for the Pell grant, says Bovenizer. Either way, they should fix mistakes in their financial data.