Ah January—a time for resolutions, heading back to campus and … filing for FAFSA. Whether you are still applying for college or already on campus, college students soon learn that the beginning of the year is when they have to think about filling out financial aid forms to pay for next year’s classes. Read on for some tips for college students (and parents!) on how to navigate the world of financial aid and FAFSA.
Financial aid basics
First, know you are not alone. More people than you can count have managed to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, aka FAFSA, and lived to tell about the experience. But having a little bit of inside know-how won’t hurt you. Margene Walz wrote “January is FAFSA month for college students and their parents” on January 7, 2014, for the Orange County Breeze, which offered some expert advice on handling this all-too-intimidating task.
- FAFSA determines your eligibility for federal assistance in the form of scholarships, grants and loans.
- You can complete a FAFSA form online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.
- The federal processor determines your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
- Once you complete the FAFSA and your EFC is determined, it is automatically sent to the colleges you have selected.
Simple enough, right? Walz advises students and prospective students to “submit your FAFSA as soon as possible after Jan. 1. Many schools have limited funds so the earlier you apply the better your chances for receiving aid. Always be aware of your chosen college’s financial aid deadlines!”
The U.S. Department of Education’s blog compiled a handy-dandy list of common myths by intern Mark Valdez on January 3, 2014, about filing for FAFSA at “7 Myths About the FAFSA and Applying for Financial Aid.”
- My parents make too much. There is no income cut-off for financial aid.
- My grades are bad, so I’m not eligible. Most federal aid programs do not look at your grades.
- I’m too old. There’s no age cut-off for financial aid for college students.
- The application is too hard. Now that the application is online, it is easier than ever to fill out, and if you do need help along the way there is guided assistance.
- My parents haven’t filed their taxes yet. If the deadline is before your parents have completed their taxes, you can use estimates and then revise once tax information is complete.
- I support myself, so I can leave my parents out of it. This is not necessarily true. Check your dependency status by answering these questions.
- I filled out FAFSA freshman year already. Sorry, but you have to fill out the form every year you intend on taking classes.
Paying for college
Tips for college students on how to pay for higher education are always a hot topic. Christina Couch wrote on January 6, 2014, for ABCNews “10 Timely Tips to Pay for College in 2014.” Here are some highlights:
- Look for tuition deals. “Several public school systems, including the University of California and Iowa State systems, have already proposed tuition freezes for the upcoming year.”
- Prepare for changes in federal aid. “Starting with the 2014-2015 school year, the FAFSA will collect information on both legal parents, regardless of marital status or gender.”
- Read the 529 plan fine print. Some state’s plans are changing in 2014, so read the terms for each plan carefully, and don’t be afraid to do some comparison shopping.
- Choose your college carefully. Check out the college navigator tool offered by the National Center for Education Statistics. This can help you find schools that offer good financial aid packages to families in your income bracket.
- Investigate cheaper alternatives. Consider dual enrollment, advanced placement classes or International Baccalaureate and CLEP exams.
By getting creative you may be able to reduce the price of a degree, plus benefit from financial aid by following the above tips for college students filing for FAFSA. Not too shabby.
Got your FAFSA tales to tell? Share your tips for surviving the financial aid gauntlet in the comments below.