If your child is entering their final years of high school, you undoubtedly have begun to think about what college they’ll be attending. You might also be wondering how to pay for it.
You know financial aid exists, of course, but you may not know the nitty-gritty details, such as how and when to apply for it. Use this guide to help you through the process of applying for federal financial aid to ensure you get all the money you can for your child’s next phase of education.
What is the FAFSA?
FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It collects information about your family and financial situation, and the government uses it in collaboration with the college your child has applied to, to decide how much financial assistance your child is eligible to receive.
One common misconception about the FAFSA is that your child should only apply if you make under a certain amount of money. This isn’t the case – all students should complete the application. You never know what can change from year to year, and your student could be eligible for more assistance than you would expect.
The FAFSA must be completed before your child can apply for the Pennsylvania State Grant Program, which will allow them to apply for Pennsylvania work-study, which is separate from federal work-study programs. Keep in mind that even if your child is going to school part-time, they may still qualify for financial aid.
There are several different types of financial aid that might be available to your child:
- Work-study Jobs
Loans will need to be paid back, and there are both federally funded and private options. Before taking out a private loan, help your child explore all student loan options and review terms and conditions carefully to make sure your child is getting the best interest rate and repayment options.
How to Apply for Financial Aid
Your child can complete the FAFSA online by getting an FSA ID, which will allow them to access the form. You must get an ID as well, which you can obtain by going to the U.S. Department of Education site. The FAFSA requires a great deal of personal and financial information. Having this information collected in advance can help your child complete the application more quickly. Your child will need to submit the following information for themselves, as well as for the parent(s) they’re dependent on:
- Driver’s license number, if applicable
- Social Security number or Alien Registration Number for anyone who’s not a U.S. Citizen
- Tax information (most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s and other records of money earned; there is also a tool set up to transfer this information directly from the IRS)
- Records of assets and any untaxed income
Your child will also need a list of schools they plan to apply to, even if they’re not 100% sure of their choices. They can add more later, but the earlier the schools get their application, the better your child’s chances of getting aid.
When to Apply for Financial Aid
Your child should apply for financial aid the fall before they enroll in college. The FAFSA is released on October 1 each year, which is a change from the past. It previously had been released in early January of the year your child would enroll in college. Due dates vary on the federal, state and college level. For federal aid, applications must be received by June 30. In Pennsylvania, the deadline is dependent on the type of institution you will attend. Some colleges also have priority deadlines that maximize chances of getting the most aid possible.
If your child completes the form in October when it becomes available, they may even have it submitted before they send in their college applications. However, a college will not offer your child an aid package until they have submitted their official school application, even if the college is included on the FAFSA.
The earlier your child completes and submits the form, the better their chances are of getting the best package for their situation. Those who submit their applications first are apt to get more aid, while those who submit their applications later get what’s left.
In fact, many colleges send out acceptance letters and aid packages well before the deadline, so if your child is just getting their application submitted in the spring, they could be missing out on money. Make sure your child checks with all the colleges they applied to for their deadlines.
Your child can submit the FAFSA in advance of each school year for as many years as they would like, but that does not guarantee that they will receive aid every year or that the aid will be the same from year to year. Different programs have limitations on how long students can receive assistance, and it’s best to have your child check with a college financial aid counselor to see what they will be eligible for.
What to Do After Your Child Applies for Financial Aid
After your child applies for federal student aid, they should follow up with the financial aid offices of the schools they want to attend to make sure they received the application and are not missing any vital information.
Sometimes things change after your child submits the FAFSA. Some items, such as the amount of money in your or your child’s savings account, cannot be changed. These are questions that included “on the day you submitted your FAFSA” in the question. Other items, such as email or mailing address, should be updated if they are changed. Even though these may not have been errors when the FAFSA was submitted, the FAFSA form calls this “Make FAFSA Corrections.”
Financial information should be true as of the day the form is submitted. However, if your family faces a major financial challenge after your child submits the FAFSA, they can contact the school’s financial aid office and explain the situation.
Help Your Child Complete the FAFSA
College will be an exciting time in your child’s life. The less they stress about money, the more enjoyable that time will be for them, and for you. Help them start their journey off right and work toward gathering the personal and financial information your child will need from you to complete their application. If your child has questions, suggest they contact the financial aid office at the schools they’re applying to for help and encourage them to submit their application as early as possible.
Looking for more ways to help your student get ready for college financially? Check out more tips on our WalletWorks page.