Financial Aid: File the FAFSA and Get Your Share

Freelance Writer

When it comes to financial aid, it’s like the Rolling Stones say: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.” So, the question becomes how do you get it? Well, you can start with this handy guide!

If you’re planning on going to college but are worried about how to pay for it, just remember: there is financial assistance out there that can help make school affordable. But to get that money, you need to apply for it first!

For most students (and their families), cost is key in picking a college. And filling out those required financial aid forms will show you what a school will actually cost you and your family, as opposed to whatever “sticker price” you might see.

“Keep in mind that although it is time consuming, completing the financial aid forms will allow you to learn what kind of financial aid is available to you and your family and will give you a better idea of what resources you will need to enroll at your college of choice,” says M. Clarke Paine, Director of Financial Aid at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The aid process can differ from college to college, so “read the financial aid website information for each college to which you are applying,” recommends Richard Heckman, Director of Financial Aid at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

College websites usually offer extensive information on financial aid and applications. The University of California, Santa Barbara, for example, features extensive tutorials on their website that guide students through the process. As Michael Miller, the school’s Director of Financial Aid, says, “Take your time and read the application thoroughly and do not be afraid to ask questions.”

Don’t fear the FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the primary form students and their families need to file to get need-based financial aid for college, but it is not as scary or daunting as you may think. After all, it’s free to file, so you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by completing this form and sending it in. Just remember this is aid awarded based on your financial need. There is also merit-based aid that you may qualify for based on your academic achievement and/or other special talents.

You need to fill out the FAFSA to see if you qualify for federal aid: Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Stafford Loans, and work-study. The information you provide on the form may also be used to award college-specific (also known as “institutional”) and state aid. If you’re a New York State resident, for example, information you give on your FAFSA will be used to determine your eligibility for New York’s Tuition Assistance Program.

Go to the official FAFSA website at—emphasis on the “.gov”! Carefully review the details on requirements and how to file. It behooves you and your family to take the time to understand the form and what it entails firsthand, but we can give you a little preview. The FAFSA breaks down into these sections:

Basic identifying info

This is the easy stuff: your name, Social Security number, address, etc.

Education plans and background

What education have you completed thus far? Will you be a full- or part-time student in the year ahead? What types of aid do you want to be considered for? Also, have you ever been convicted of any criminal offenses?

Income and assets

This is the nitty-gritty financial information about your family’s worth. You’ll need to provide details on both parent and student income and assets.

Many of the figures the FAFSA asks for correspond with lines of the 1040 tax form. There is also a feature on the electronic FAFSA called the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which allows applicants who have already filed their federal income tax returns to easily transfer the appropriate information to the required spaces on their FAFSA. Even better: “By using the DRT, making a correction is made much easier for families,” says Venus Puliafico, Director of University Financial Aid at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

One of the major figures needed to determine aid is adjusted gross income (AGI). This is calculated as income from taxable sources minus deductions. Deductions may include unreimbursed business expenses, medical expenses, alimony, and deductible retirement plan contributions. Puliafico recommends that parents keep the assets in their name because there is a greater contribution assessed to student assets than to parent assets.

Independent or dependent status

These FAFSA questions determine if a student is financially independent or dependent on their parents or guardians. You’re considered independent if you are 24 years old by the end of the year for the financial aid award, a graduate or professional student, married (or divorced or separated), a parent or have dependents who count on you for financial support, an orphan or ward of the court, or a veteran. There are other questions specifically for independent students.

Parents’ personal info

Details about life on the home front make a difference in how much you are expected to contribute toward college. For example, older parents are not expected to chip in as much; the total number of children living at home can affect EFC; and divorce, separation, or remarriage can influence how much a family pays.

Other info

Applicants can (and should!) provide the names of the colleges they are considering; their FAFSA financial data will be sent directly to those schools. Finally, the form must be signed and dated.

The not-so-secret formula for financial aid

Basically, the FAFSA asks that a student provide financial and personal information about his or her family to calculate the student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC)—how much a student/family can effectively contribute toward college expenses. Then the college subtracts the EFC from the cost of attendance to come up with the student’s demonstrated financial need. The financial aid officer puts together an aid package to match that need. The basic formula for calculating your need-based aid is:

Cost of attendance – EFC = Need

Some add merit-based scholarships to the formula. With those awards, the formula becomes:

Cost of attendance – EFC – scholarships = Need

You might think that merit-based scholarships will reduce how much you are expected to pay. Even though you may have scholarships, you’re still expected to pay the same amount, and your amount of need-based aid becomes less. So why bother with scholarships? Getting less need-based aid can be a good thing. Need-based aid is often distributed as loans, which must be repaid, typically with interest. Scholarships, on the other hand, are free money you don’t need to repay, and they can replace loans in your financial aid package. Typically, if you win scholarships, you don’t have to borrow as much.

The PROFILE: Getting to know you better

Most public schools rely on the FAFSA alone to award need-based aid, but many private schools require the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE in addition to the FAFSA. The PROFILE (administered by the College Board) collects information used by almost 400 colleges and scholarship programs to award financial aid from sources outside of the federal government.

While many selective private colleges use the PROFILE, some state schools, like the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, use the form as well.

With the PROFILE, a college collects more information about a family’s worth beyond what the FAFSA asks for, such as the value of home equity, family-owned small businesses, vehicles owned, and more. The PROFILE will also ask for details on financial accounts, such as checking, savings, mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and 529 savings plans. Retirement funds, however, are not counted, so money that parents may have in 401Ks, IRAs, SEPs, and pensions are not considered when determining how much a family should be able to contribute.

Colleges take into account this information and, essentially, the higher a family’s worth, the more they are expected to pay. Further complicating things, depending on the forms and information required, your PROFILE EFC can change from school to school, whereas the FAFSA EFC is a static figure determined by the government and doesn’t change depending on the school.

The PROFILE also differs from the FAFSA in that it is not free. The fee for the initial application and one college or program report is $25. Additional reports are $16. You can find out more about the PROFILE on the College Board website.

Don’t miss deadlines—and don’t make mistakes!

If you’re heading to college (or returning) for the 2017–2018 school year, the earliest you can file the FAFSA is October 1, 2016. But keep in mind that your colleges may have a different deadline for the PROFILE. 

Much of the information required is pretty straightforward, but financial aid advisors say people make mistakes on some of the easiest parts of the form. For example, Puliafico says one of the most common mistakes parents and students make is filling out their Social Security number incorrectly. “Sometimes parents put in their number where they should put in the student’s, or they transpose a number,” she explains.

Francesca, a freshman at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, says organization is key in handling the financial process. As a high school senior in San Carlos, California, she and her family got paperwork together months in advance of the year she was to enroll in college. “We began researching and documenting deadlines at the end of the summer prior to senior year,” says Francesca’s father, Christian. “Everyone tells you, ‘Don’t miss a deadline.’ I took that seriously, and was a very busy time.”

And be hyper aware when filling out income fields. The newly updated FAFSA has been tripping up some families adding cents to their income figure, as the decimal point is now automatically included. So when people add the decimal manually, it gets stripped away. For example, $49,000.00 would be interpreted as $4,900,000! Their aid is then calculated using that much higher income, which can seriously impact need-based awards. Families can certainly work with schools to fix the error, and FAFSA and financial aid admins are aware of the problem, but you and your family should be too.

Get organized

It’s often helpful to try grouping your financial information in two categories (using either digital or hard copies): Folder 1 for income and expense information, and Folder 2 for asset information.

Income and expenses may include taxable income for both parents and the student. This covers wages, pensions, capital gains, rents collected, interest earned, dividends, annuities, unemployment compensation, alimony received, and business income. Non-taxable income should be accounted for as well: workers’ compensation, welfare benefits (excluding food stamps), housing and food allowances, child support received, untaxed Social Security benefits, untaxed income from pensions and annuities, veterans’ benefits, tax-exempt interest income, and deductible payments made to a retirement plan. Also gather details on expenses: income tax paid and child support paid.

Asset information can go in a second folder. This contains details on all financial accounts and investments (except retirement funds), net worth of all property owned, and worth of vehicles and businesses owned. 

Weighing financial aid offers

Just like colleges vary in cost, they also vary in financial aid packages awarded. Francesca and her parents set up a spreadsheet to compare the colleges that interested her, with a column to compare aid offers from each school and estimates on how much they would ultimately cost.

Francesca evaluated schools according to three big categories: the school had to be a good academic fit, a good social fit, and a good financial fit. If a school failed to meet any of those criteria, it was out of the running.  

On the academic front, Francesca was evaluating things like class size (she wanted small classes), professor accessibility, and intellectual life.

In the social realm, she wanted an artistic community, as she’s interested in theater. She didn’t want a campus dominated by Greek life. She also wanted vegetarian food options.

Some of her financial considerations were how much she would be awarded in need- and merit-based aid, how much aid would be in the form of loans, and how much would be in work-study. For Francesca, the need-based offers ranged from $0–$20,000. Her final choice met all three criteria, including affordability.

Please, sir, may I have some more?

When it came down to making the final decision about which school to attend, Francesca’s first choice was not the one with the best aid package—at least not at first. Compared to one of her second-choice schools, her first choice actually cost $6,000 more. So she decided to ask for additional aid. And schools may not “negotiate” necessarily, but they will reconsider a family’s situation and see if there’s anything that they missed.

“I call it a re-evaluation,” says Puliafico at Case Western. “It has to be a legitimate misstep or new information that we didn’t have before for our office to consider a re-evaluation. Also, it must be a significant financial difference for an adjustment to a financial aid award to happen. Depending on the circumstance and a school’s budget, it may be considered at any point in the application process.”

Francesca’s family contacted her first-choice school and reviewed their financial situation and changes that had affected their income during the previous months. They also went over other factors that could influence their ability to pay (making mortgage payments, for example). After this re-evaluation, the school offered a better aid package.

Francesca learned that by being organized, proactive, and communicative with financial aid offices, she ultimately could direct her financial aid process—and make it possible to go to the college of her choice.

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