You’ve decided to continue your education and apply to college. As exciting as it is to think about the potential opportunities a degree may bring, one major question comes to mind:
How in the world are you going to pay for this?
One answer could be scholarships. Grants are another. Either way, there’s one thing you should do, regardless of your work situation or financial status – apply for financial aid through the federal Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA.
Chances are, if you are gearing up to attend college, you’ve heard of it. Chances also are that you are dreading it. Just applying can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.
Submitting the FAFSA is a crucial step on your collegiate journey. Consider the questions below before filling out the FAFSA or applying for any kind of financial aid.
1. How Much Will College Cost?
Not all college costs are created equal. The price of a college education depends on your major, any fees a college may (or may not) levy, and whether you plan to enter a traditional campus program, earn a degree online or a combination of the two. Before going after financial aid to pay for school, find out how much money you will need. The Net Price Calculator offered by New England College is a great place to start.
2. What Does the School Need?
Every school has different requirements for the documentation they will need from you. Many schools (including NEC) are fine with just the information from the FAFSA, which is free to submit. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) says you should not pay to submit a FAFSA. The DOE offers tips on how to avoid paying for services, and how to protect yourself from potential scams related to finding financial aid.
Some schools may want you to fill out a College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. The CSS Profile does charge a fee. Other schools also may have their own set of forms they want you to fill out for financial aid separate of the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile.
In short: based on your situation, find out what you need to fill out. And check with the schools you are interested in to find out what they need, in detail.
3. Are You a Dependent?
Find out if you are listed as a dependent on your legal guardian’s tax return (usually, your parents if they’re married or a custodial parent if they’re divorced) or as an independent student.
- If you are a dependent student, then you must supply the income and financial information for whoever claims you as a dependent.
- If you are an independent student, you must supply your own income information.
The FAFSA lists guidelines to determine your dependency status.
4. What Information Do You Need?
Once you know how much money you need and what paperwork you must file, it’s time to gather documents. This also involves obtaining an FSA ID, a username and password that gives you access to certain education sites, including the FAFSA, and allows you to sign your FAFSA electronically and submit a renewal form. Keep the following information handy:
- The name and code number of the school you want to apply to (e.g., NEC’s federal school code is 002579). You can list up to 10 schools on your FAFSA; none of the schools find out what others you listed.
- All the required financial papers.
- Your Social Security Number.
- Your driver’s license number.
- Income tax records for you and your parents (if applicable).
- Record of assets (cars, property, etc.).
5. When Should You Apply for Financial Aid?
This is not like an exam you cram for the night before (which we’ve all done). It’s wise to get all the paperwork together, choose schools and apply as soon as possible. The FAFSA becomes available on Oct. 1 for the following school year. Some financial aid programs have limited funds, so you want to be among the first in line. It’s also much faster to apply online than using traditional mail.
6. Have You Checked Everything?
This is an area where mistakes can prove costly, delaying acceptance of your form and potentially limiting your access to some financial aid as others move in line before you. Double check everything on your form. Make sure you have filed every piece of paperwork requested. Take another look at the schools and their codes, and make sure they are the right ones.
Then, do all that again before filing.
7. What If You Need Help?
Now is not a time to go it alone. Because this involves both the government and academic institutions, there is a very detailed form about how to fill out the FAFSA. In this case, it’s a government document you really want to read. You can also contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-800-433-3243, or your school if you need some help.
Pursuing a college degree is one of the most important moves you can make to improve your career and enhance the quality of your life. While somewhat cumbersome, filing for financial aid is a small task to handle relative to the potential for big rewards. Keep these tips in mind to make the most of your financial aid application.