Understand How to Apply for Financial Aid
Since most of us don’t have enough to pay the sticker price for the average college, applying for financial aid is essential to being able to attend college.
The First Step is the FAFSA
The golden ticket to most forms of financial aid at college is completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA because the federal government, many state agencies, and colleges and universities themselves use the processed application to determine financial aid. Families can start as early as October 1st to apply for aid for the following academic year. Although the feds will tell you that the FAFSA can be completed until June 30th the following year, don’t wait. Many many state agencies and colleges and universities have earlier deadlines to prioritize the distribution of their gift aid.
For dependent students, the FAFSA must be completed by the student and the parent that gives them more than 50% of their financial support. To be ready to complete the FAFSA, you’ll need:
- FSA IDs to sign in electronically
- Social Security Numbers
- Alien Registration Numbers (if you are not a U.S. citizen)
- Federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned. (Note: Many families are now able to transfer data from the IRS to the Department of Education using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.)
- Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
- Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
You’ll want to allocate at least one hour to complete the FAFSA.
Knowing the College Specific Forms is Essential
Some colleges use supplemental forms in order to award their need-based and merit-based gift aid. Many private colleges (and some public ones) use the CSS Profile, which asks a lot more detailed questions than the FAFSA. Assume it will take you one to hours to complete this form. You can get the heads up on the priority deadlines for specific colleges on the CSS Profile website.
Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile costs $25 for the first college or organization. Each additional college/organization will cost $16. Expect a charge of $121 if your student applies to 7 colleges use the CSS Profile.
Other colleges have their own free forms, especially to award their merit scholarships. Check out the college’s website or ask the admissions office for more information on scholarship forms and their deadlines.
Don’t Miss Out on State Aid
Most states offer need-based aid, but some offer merit-based scholarships too. Although many use the FAFSA, some have their own free forms that focus on GPA verification or other supplemental information. For example, Oregon Office of Student Access and Completion (OSAC) has a separate form that can give you access to over 500 different scholarships. Ensure you know the deadlines for completing any state aid forms.
Pro Tip: Make certain you know if the state aid is restricted by college type or location. Some state aid may be only awarded if you go in-state to a public university. Others may allow state aid to be used at private college in your state of residence. While still others may allow you to port your state aid to any college (or a list of states where they have reciprocal agreements.)
Colleen MacDonald Krumwiede is a financial aid and paying for college expert with over a decade of financial aid experience at Stanford GSB, Caltech, and Pomona College and another decade at educational finance and technology companies servicing higher education. She guides go-to-market strategy and product development at Quatromoney to transform the way families afford college.