It's that time again...
For college-bound students and their families, filling out the FAFSA can feel like one of the most confusing and stressful parts of the college process. But it doesn't have to be.
In September 2020, College Confidential sat down with James Vincent-Dunn, director of financial aid at Franklin College and Charlie Javice, founder and CEO of Frank to talk about the FAFSA and how students and families can navigate the process of to paying for college.
They answered some of the most common questions students and families ask about the FAFSA.
Yes - the FAFSA opens multiple avenues for aid.
"I would say everyone should really file FAFSA," Javice said. "And the reason for that is that FAFSA opens up not only grants, but subsidized loans and Parent PLUS loans which can be a fantastic option if you need that additional financing. The other thing is that FAFSA enables you to also apply and use as a basis for potentially other types of grants and scholarships at your school or at private companies or employer benefits. So it's really important you file a FAFSA no matter what."
The FAFSA will also reveal your expected family contribution (EFC), so you can start budgeting and determine which colleges may be affordable, she added. Therefore, it's a good idea to start gathering the documents you may need to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible.
Vincent-Dunn agreed, noting that the FAFSA unlocks the door for any federal grants and sometimes scholarships. "At Franklin, for example, we have institutional money from donors that are wanting to donate and give money to students and it's specifically tied to students who have filed the FAFSA. That's one of the requirements that, when they created the scholarship, they wanted to have that as a stipulation."
Because completing the FAFSA can open up so many funding opportunities, "it's the best five minute return on investment that you could possibly do," he said.
Javice reminds families to never pay to file the FAFSA. It's free to complete, and if you encounter problems along the way, you can find organizations that can help at no charge, or you can ask the financial aid offices at the colleges on your list.
As soon as possible, after it opens! Don't wait to complete the FAFSA or CSS Profile.
If you are thinking about filing the FAFSA but you don't want to do it this week, you may want to put it on your calendar for the near future.
"There is an advantage to filing early," Vincent-Dunn said. "One of the biggest advantages is that depending upon your state of residence, each state may have their own individual state deadline. So the state of Indiana, for example, the FAFSA filing deadline is April 15 ... And on top of that, outside entities like scholarship organizations, even the colleges that you're applying to, they may have their own individual deadlines."
Keep in mind, however, that not every school requires just the FAFSA. You may encounter colleges that want you to complete the CSS Profile as well.
"The CSS Profile is a tool that students can use to apply for grants and scholarships," Vincent-Dunn said. "It's similar to the FAFSA, from the standpoint that it's going to measure your family's financial situation to then give you a better profile of what your financial strength is as a family unit. And some schools will use that CSS Profile as a means of kind of capturing a better sense of a family's financial strength."
In addition, the CSS Profile may be applicable to students who are applying from other countries.
"Because international students are not able to file a FAFSA, we at Franklin College will have them do the CSS Profile, plus we have an internal document that we use as well that we kind of mimic off of the profile to then capture that financial information so we can then do an internal measure of the students and families' financial strength," he added.
Javice reminds students that although the FAFSA is free, the CSS Profile is not, so you should add the cost of it ($25 for the first school, $16 for subsequent schools) into your application budget.
In most cases, students will need their parents' tax information when completing the FAFSA, but there are exceptions. In cases where your parents aren't married, you have special rules to follow on which parent should complete the form. In addition, the FAFSA will ask you 13 dependency questions to determine whether you'll need parents to fill out information on the form at all.
These questions may take a few minutes to get through, Vincent-Dunn notes.
"Are you married? If you happen to get married, then you no longer need your parent information, but you need your spouse's. And then are you 24 years of age or older, are you entering in graduate school, do you have children that you support? If you're getting to that point of the questions and it's just none of these apply, then 99.9 percent of the time, it will prompt you and say, 'We then need your parent information.' However, it will then also say, 'Are there other circumstances that weren't listed before that may warrant a financial aid person to do an administrative review, and do an override of your dependency?' And so there is a button that you can click on that says, 'yes, I have a special circumstance, and I would like a financial aid administrator to contact me and, and we can talk.' And then when you submit that we'll get the FAFSA and we'll have that messaging so then we can reach out to you."
Your financial aid package may not necessarily cover the entire cost of a college's tuition, room & board and fees, so you may have to fill in the gaps elsewhere.
"FAFSA gives you the actual code called your EFC (Expected Family Contribution)," Javice said. "This refers to the out of pocket money the government estimates you should pay. And guess what? Most people cannot afford that number. So then the question becomes, how do you afford that number and that is actually is the most important part paying for your education because filling out a form is not the hard part. Filling out a form is just information."
The EFC does not take into account your cost of living, she notes.
"You could be in New York City, making $50,000 or in somewhere in rural Alabama and you will have the same EFC and obviously you have very different standards of living and FAFSA does not take that into account.
When you complete the FAFSA, it's likely that the majority of the package will typically be in the form of loans, Javice said.
"The $6,000 maximum in Pell Grant money is reserved for under $50,000 in household income," she added. After determining whether you'll qualify for this and for loans, then you need to complete some calculations on your own.
To fill in the gaps of what you'll need to pay for college, you can do things like take more AP courses or dual-enrollment classes in high school that will give you early college credit, enroll in community college prior to attending a four-year school to save money, pick a school that provides you with merit money, attend a state school, or apply for private scholarships as just a few of the many options in paying for college.
Contact the financial aid departments at the colleges you're admitted to and ask to appeal the financial aid process.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many families are finding that their financial situations have changed, but the FAFSA will rely on previous tax returns, which may reflect higher incomes than families currently have. Because of that, you may need to contact each school's financial aid office once they have your FAFSA to let them know that you're requesting professional judgement, which is an appeal of the financial aid decision.
"Colleges don't have to operate under professional judgment," Vincent-Dunn said. "But many schools do because they know that it's going to, for the most part, help students. If you're applying to multiple schools, the biggest thing I can tell you is to reach out to those schools and let them know, 'You got my FAFSA, but I have a little curveball for you. I have a special circumstance.'"
Javice notes that if you do go this route, make sure you have documentation showing how and why your income is different than what's on your tax returns. This could include recent pay stubs, a letter of termination from a job or any other details.
2021 Update: Colleges and university received nearly $40 billion in funding in the government stimulus package. Many schools are planning to use this money to support students and their families who are struggling to pay for school. If it's difficult to cover the cost of school or your financial situation changed, be sure to reach out and see what options your school offers for families' with financial need.
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This article was originally published in September 2020 and was updated by CC Editors in September 2021.
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