college

What you need to know about FAFSA

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Highlights
  • The FAFSA form should be completed as soon after January 1 as possible.
  • You must fill it out to qualify for grants and federal student loans.
  • The Student Aid Report reveals your expected family contribution.

Even in a society as paperwork-intensive as ours, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, may be one of the of the most important forms you'll ever fill out. The information you provide on the FAFSA helps determine the amount of financial aid you (or your child) will receive for the year. Financial aid comes in several forms, including grants -- that's free money -- and federal student loans, which generally offer better terms and benefits than private student loans.

Since much college aid is handed out on a first-come, first-served basis, fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible after the application becomes available. A student can turn in a FAFSA for the upcoming academic year from the time the form comes out on Jan. 1 until June 30 of the following year. But your best bet is to file as early in the year as possible. Individual states begin imposing filing deadlines as early as Feb. 15.

You can obtain a paper copy of the form at most secondary schools or colleges, or fill it out online at FAFSA.gov. (Don't confuse that site with FAFSA.com.)

To fill out the form, you'll need to assemble the following:

  • Your Social Security number.
  • Parents' federal income tax return from the previous year or, if you're considered independent for tax purposes, your tax return.
  • Your driver's license.
  • Your untaxed income records such as child support received, workers' compensation and veterans noneducation benefit records.
  • Your current bank statements.
  • Information related to any investments or businesses you have ownership in.
  • If you're not a U.S. citizen, your alien registration or Green Card.

Once you've filled out the form, which has been significantly streamlined in recent years, it's time to sign and submit it. You can sign the form in one of two ways:

  • If you fill out the FAFSA online, you can apply for a PIN while completing the FAFSA or go to www.pin.ed.gov to apply. A PIN enables you to "sign" the form electronically. While it may take one to three days to get official confirmation back, you can begin using your PIN immediately on a conditional basis.
  • You can also print out a copy of a paper signature page provided at the end of the application process, sign it and send it in by snail mail.

The Student Aid Report

Once you've filed your FAFSA, you'll receive your Student Aid Report, or SAR, in three to five days if you filed electronically or two weeks if you filed it via snail mail. The key piece of information you'll get from the SAR is your expected family contribution, or EFC. This will show you how much of a school's tuition your family will be expected to pay out of pocket when seeking need-based aid from your schools of choice.

Because the EFC is so central to your overall price tag for college, checking the SAR carefully against the documentation listed above can save you headaches later. Also, not all schools will be able to close the gap between EFC and tuition completely, so once financial aid offers start coming from the institutions you've been accepted to, it pays to scrutinize them carefully and even contact financial aid offices in search of better deals.

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