Strapped for College Costs? How to Get the Most From FAFSA

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If you’re headed to college – or are the parent of a high school student who is getting ready to – you’re no doubt thinking hard about how to make it all happen without breaking the bank.

The good news is that there’s lots of help out there, particularly when it comes to filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms you’ll need to kick off the search for student aid – including loans, grants and scholarships.

To make it a little easier to wade through all that advice, we’ve pulled together the following list of key tips on how to get the most from filling out the online FAFSA for yourself or your college-bound child.

Know your college(s)

Even if you don’t yet know which college, university or career school you plan to pursue – or which one has accepted you – it’s important that you list the school (or schools) that you’ve applied to. The FAFSA application requires the name of at least one institution.

The online version of the application – at https://fafsa.gov – provides room to list up to 10 different schools. By doing this work, you’ll ensure that all the places to which you have applied will receive the results of your FAFSA application (which, in turn, will guide whatever grants or scholarships they may be able to extend to you).

Submit the right tax return

There are a number of possible tax returns you may need when filling out the FAFSA. So make sure that you submit the right ones.

In the simplest case, for a student who hasn’t had a summer job or needed to file a tax return, that student may only need to provide information on the income of his or her parents. That information can even be filled out automatically using the “IRS Data Retrieval Tool” on the FAFSA site (which will import the needed tax information from the parents’ latest tax return automatically into the FAFSA form).

It is not uncommon, however, for students to have divorced parents. The decision about which parent (or parents) to include on the FAFSA form depends on which parent a student lives with most of the time – or, in the case of students who spend equal amounts of time with their divorced parents, it depends on which parent pays for most of their expenses.

The federal student aid site provides a great chart that makes clear how this works – and any FAFSA applicants with divorced parents may want to check it out.

Don’t assume you are independent

The other question you’ll face on the tax return issue for FAFSA is how a student’s own income is treated. You’ll definitely need to include any income earned from summer or part-time jobs while in high school (and the tax returns filed to go along with that income), but know that just having income does not move a student into an “independent” category, where he or she might qualify for a higher level of student aid.

To be independent, you have to clear a pretty high bar. The FAFSA site says an independent student “is one of the following: at least 24 years old, married, a graduate or professional student, a veteran, a member of the armed forces, an orphan, a ward of the court, or someone with legal dependents other than a spouse, an emancipated minor or someone who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.”

Get going now

Don’t wait around to file your FAFSA. Many scholarships and grants are limited and decided earlier than you might think.

A great resource for figuring out the state deadlines for FAFSA submissions is the FAFSA website, which publishes updated deadlines as they are released.

Also be aware of the financial aid deadlines of any school – or schools – that you (or your student) want to attend. Those deadlines will likely be on their websites, but, if not, a quick call or email to the school should get you that information.

Also, don’t let the lack of a current year tax return delay your FAFSA. You can always file with the most recent return you have, provide estimates for the current year and then update with actual numbers from this year’s tax return when you have it.

Understand the expected family contribution

When you complete your FAFSA, it will generate a number that represents your “Expected Family Contribution” (EFC), which universities and colleges use to calculate the amount of loans and scholarships available to you at those institutions, as well as federal student aid. The EFC isn’t actually a number that you or your family will be asked to pay, but it – along with another calculated number, the “Cost of Attendance” (COA) – determines the level of aid that will be offered to you.

The government’s student aid website explains how the EFC and the amount of any financial aid you already have been awarded are subtracted from the COA to determine how much “need-based aid” or “non-need-based aid” you might be able to access. (“Non-need-based aid” is available regardless of how much income a student’s parents make.)

Make an informed choice

Once you’ve submitted your FAFSA, you’ll learn what loans, grants and scholarships are available to you. Be sure to read the fine print on all loans offered to you (as well as all scholarships and grants, some of which may be at least partially revoked should you leave the school).

This is particularly important with loans, as some can carry significant rates of interest – and create debt that stays with you for quite a number of years after you leave school.

Have you filled out the FAFSA and have your own tips or advice to share? Share your experiences below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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