May 29, 2019

Your Easy Guide to Filling Out the FAFSA

stack of coins and a graduate's cap

College students, and possibly their parents or guardians, are primarily responsible for paying for the costs of higher education. However, Federal Student Aid (FSA) is available at many institutions of higher learning across the United States. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) determines a student’s eligibility for various types of federal aid and can bridge the gap between each year’s tuition bill and college savings.

Institutions of higher education that participate in FSA programs often create financial aid award packages on a first-come, first-served basis. Therefore, it’s critical to submit the FAFSA well before the priority deadline to receive a financial aid award package that contains all aid for which the student is eligible. Late, incomplete, or inaccurate applications can cause students to miss out on federal grants or other need-based financial aid programs.  Submitting a completed application by the college’s priority deadline is as easy as adding the institution’s Federal School Code to the FAFSA form.

Here’s what you and your student should know before visiting to complete the FAFSA for the first time.

Gaining Access to Federal Aid

The FAFSA can be filed online, via myStudentAid mobile app or mailed in hardcopy format to the address on the application. Before your student can apply for FSA online or using the mobile app, they must create an FSA ID. Students must maintain separate FSA IDs from their parents/guardians. The IDs allow applicants to create a FAFSA and serve to authenticate online signatures.

Do not share your FAFSA ID. If students and parents are in different locations, they can still complete the FAFSA creating a Save Key. This temporary password can be shared so the other individual(s) can complete their part of the FAFSA at a convenient time and place.

A Question of Dependency

The FAFSA application is for the student, not the parents or guardians. While a parent or guardian’s personal and financial information may be required to complete the form, it may be for reasons other than what is commonly assumed. Once the family understands what is meant by “dependency status”, completing the application is simply a matter of gathering certain documents and accurately submitting the requested information.

Dependency status, for FAFSA purposes, is defined by Congress and differs from the definition provided under Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidelines. This will often mean that a parent/guardian who believes their son or daughter is “independent” under IRS rules is considered “dependent” for the FAFSA or vise versa. Students considered dependent must include parental/guardian data on the FAFSA. Due to the circumstances that would qualify a student as FAFSA dependent, students are encouraged to refrain from making any presumptions regarding dependency status. As the student completes the FAFSA, dependency status will be confirmed.

Gather Your Documents

Students and parents/guardians of dependent students will need these documents to complete the FAFSA:

  • Social Security Numbers
  • Driver’s License Number (if applicable)
  • Alien Registration Number (for non-U.S. citizens)
  • Bank/Investment Brokerage Statements
  • Other Asset Records
  • W2s and Federal Income Tax Statements
  • Untaxed Income Records, e.g., interest income, child support received, and veterans noneducation benefits

Other financial documents may be required based on your student’s particular situation. Documents should not be submitted with the FAFSA.

When completing the FAFSA online, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) to simplify data collection related to federal taxes. Users of IRS DRT can link to the IRS and reduce the time needed to complete the FAFSA and be assured of its accuracy. Otherwise, applicants will need to reference their hardcopy records and manually enter the data.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

When applications contain errors, the result is often delayed processing and a reduction in financial aid awards. Remember, each educational institution has limited funds such as the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) and Federal Work-Study (FWS), which are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. FSEOG and FWS are need-based aid that do not require repayment.

Avoid these common FAFSA submission errors:

  • Submitting an application with incomplete or blank fields
  • Providing incorrect social security numbers or driver’s license numbers
  • Failing to use the legal name as it appears on the Social Security card
  • Supplying inaccurate information as of the day the FAFSA is signed, e.g., marital status, household size, etc.
  • Forgetting to add the Federal School Code for every school that the student intends to apply regardless of current admission acceptance status

Students must re-apply for FSA each federal award year (July 1- June 30) and prior year awards are not automatically renewed each year. Your student may be eligible for more or less federal aid with each passing year. Completing the FAFSA can be intimidating at first, but understanding what’s required can help reduce anxiety about next year’s tuition bill.