Why Every College Student Should File A FAFSA

September 22, 2014 8:00 AM

Photo Credit Thinkstock

Photo Credit Thinkstock

The federal government provides billions in grants, loans and work-study opportunities to undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College Board estimates that two-thirds of full-time undergraduates receive some government help with college costs. Completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step students must take to access this aid. Even those that believe they are not qualified for aid should file each year to determine eligibility.

Why file a FAFSA?

Grants, which do not have to be paid back, and low-interest loans can help ease the burden of tuition costs. Federally funded work-study programs can put some extra money in a student’s pocket to help with incidental expenses during the school year. Additionally, many states that offer financial assistant to students require students first complete the federal application.

Who is eligible for federal financial aid?

Government aid is based on financial need. Adult students as well as recent high school graduates are eligible. Unlike many scholarship programs, federal student aid does not consider academic performance, although students receiving aid must meet their college’s standard for satisfactory academic progress to continue receiving aid.  Students must be enrolled in a degree or certificate granting program at least half-time (six or more credit hours) to be eligible. Additionally, male students ages 18 through 25 must register for Selective Service to be considered for financial aid.

Is there an application fee?

As the name of the application suggests, applying for aid is free. Note that some websites appear to be the federal free site, but applicants will be asked to pay a fee. The official federal site is FAFSA.ed.gov. Some students may wish to hire a professional to help complete the form, but in recent years, FAFSA has been simplified and usually can be completed online in less than one hour. A new feature, the IRS Retrieval Tool, allows many applicants to automatically transfer income information from the IRS into the FAFSA.

When should students file a FAFSA?

The deadline for filing a FAFSA is June 30, but students should complete the application as soon after Jan. 1 as possible each year they plan to attend college. Funds do run out, and applying early will help ensure students receive the aid for which they are eligible. While having a completed tax return available is helpful, it is not necessary. Students can add income information from pay stubs and W-2 forms. If a student or parent, after completing their tax return, discovers new information, the FAFSA may be amended.

Must a student include parent’s income information?

Dependent students must include parent or guardian income information. In most cases, if the student has not reached age 24 by Dec. 31 of the school year, the student is considered a dependent, even if he or she is living independently or expects no help from their parents with college expenses.

There are cases when a student younger than 24 may be considered independent. Married students, students with dependents, homeless students or students in danger of becoming homeless and those who are legally declared emancipated may be granted independent status and can exclude parents income from their FAFSA application. In cases where a student has no contact with their parents, the student should file a FAFSA and then contact the financial aid office where they plan to attend college and explain their circumstances.

How much aid can a student expect?

The U.S. Department of Education provides an online calculator for students that wish to get a rough approximation of how much federal aid, and what type of aid, they may expect. Enter income, household and college costs information into the FAFSA 4caster  and the calculator will return with an estimate of Pell grants, student loans and work-study opportunities. States will have separate grant and loan programs for which a student may be eligible. Applications for these may link directly to the FAFSA so information will automatically transfer into the state form. Note that state deadlines are often different from the federal filing deadline.

Gillian Burdett is a freelance writer covering all things home and living. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.