Why complete the FAFSA? That’s easy! The FAFSA “…opens the door to the federal aid process.” That mini-quote was on the FAFSA on the Web page a few years back, and it really drives home the purpose of the FAFSA. From there you can find comprehensive information on the FAFSA, and even complete it online. For those who don't feel they need to complete it, here are a few things to keep in mind.
The FAFSA is the starting point not only for grants, but also for student loans and work-study jobs. Even students who don’t qualify for grants may want to take advantage of the favorable rates and terms on student loans. Work-study jobs are often relatively easy jobs. In many cases students can actually do their homework while working (For example, working the desk in the library or gym).
Another critical advantage of work-study jobs has to do with next year's FAFSA. I won’t get into specifics, but the bottom line is this. Most earnings a student has in their first school year will affect the aid they get the following year. Work-study earnings will not. Let me repeat that. Work-study earnings in the first year of school (through the magic of schedule C on the FAFSA) will not affect eligibility for aid the following year. Similar earnings from a non work-study job will affect the following year’s eligibility.
Another reason to complete the FAFSA is that s***f (stuff) happens. For example, parents may lose a job and as a result family income may drop dramatically. If the FAFSA is on file when this occurs, the financial aid office of the college a student is attending can adjust to the new situation. If not, it may be months—or even longer—before any adjustment to the aid package can be done.
Finally, it’s important to remember that many colleges will not award their own aid unless the FAFSA has been filed. To put it in simpler terms, there may be students heading towards college who shouldn’t fill out a FAFSA, but I've never met one.
When is it due? Well, the next FAFSA site has a deadline calculator that will give you the deadline for the FAFSA and a deadline for aid from your state. Be careful with these deadlines for a few reasons.
The first is simply that it's easy to select the wrong school year which will obviously yield the wrong deadlines, so please be careful with that.
Next, you’ll want your FAFSA filed early enough so that the colleges you designate will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) early enough to include you for consideration for their institutional aid. You can find out from each college what that date is, but if you file your FAFSA in early February, you should be OK in almost all cases.
Finally, the easiest time to complete the FAFSA is February. To complete it, you’ll be using lots of the same information you (and your parents) use to do your tax returns. Why wait until that information is filed (or even lost) to complete your FAFSA? I tell all my students to download the FAFSA .pdf version and keep them handy in the kitchen. Then, as tax documents arrive in January and February, the worksheets can be filled out easily as each document arrives.
Sometime in mid-February you’ll want to go online and complete the FAFSA. Once you do, both you, and the colleges you select will get the info colleges need to put together aid packages for you.
Need help with the FAFSA? You’ll find plenty online on the FAFSA help page, as well as phone numbers (Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).
Don’t’ overlook the best source of all though. For live help from someone really motivated to see you get the best aid package possible, simply call the financial aid office at one of the colleges you've been accepted at. Those professionals work with the FAFSA day in and day out, and can probably answer any question you could possibly give them.