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Applying for Federal Student Aid? Here’s What Students Need to Get Started

As you and your child prepare for college, you might feel overwhelmed by a “To-Do” list as long as your arm. But, one task should secure the top spot if you and your student hope to keep out-of-pocket college costs to a minimum.

Sample To-Do List

  1. Complete the FAFSA.
  2. Visit college campuses.
  3. Apply for college admission.

What is FAFSA? The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the form used to determine a student’s eligibility for Federal Student Aid programs, e.g., federal student grants, low-interest rate federal student loans, and work-study programs. Many colleges across the country who participate in the Federal Student Aid (FSA) programs also use FAFSA results to create institution based financial aid award packages for eligible students.

Financial aid awards might include:

  • Federal Pell Grants
  • Federal Stafford Loans
  • Federal Parent PLUS Loans
  • Graduate and Professional Student PLUS Loans (Grad PLUS)
  • Need-based institutional scholarships
  • Need-based institutional grants
  • Campus-Based Programs for which there is limited funding such as:
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants
  • Federal Work-study
  • Perkins Loans

Grants and scholarships are types of financial aid assistance that need not be repaid (free money). Loans must be repaid according to the promissory note. Contact each college’s financial aid office to confirm application deadlines since campus-based programs, need-based institutional scholarships, and certain grants are awarded to eligible students on a first-come, first served basis.

Whether applicants complete the FAFSA online, via mobile app, or mail in the hard copy version, they must gather financial documents before they begin. Applicants need these documents to complete the FAFSA accurately, but they should not be submitted with the FAFSA form. Helpful documents include:

  • Social Security Number or Alien Registration Number (non-U.S. citizens)
  • Federal Income Tax Returns, W-2s
  • Records of Untaxed Income; e.g., child support received
  • Bank Statements
  • Asset and Investment Records
  • Federal School Code of the colleges or universities of interest
  • Other documents may be required based on the applicant’s particular situation

Students classified as dependent for FAFSA purposes will need the same documents from their parents or guardians to complete the parent/guardian section of the form. The Office of Federal Student Aid uses the personal and financial information provided on the application to determine eligibility for financial assistance.

If an applicant and their parent/guardian completes the form online, they will also need to create a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. The ID is used to access the application and sign electronically.  

While your student can mail in their completed FAFSA, an online application has advantages over a paper submission. Online FAFSA applications can link to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to ensure the tax information is entered accurately and quickly.  Incorrect or conflicting information submitted via the FAFSA can lead to delayed processing. The earlier a student submits an accurate and complete FAFSA, the better chances they have of receiving all financial assistance for which they are eligible.

Students need to complete the FAFSA annually to determine eligibility for Federal Student Aid. Financial assistance isn’t guaranteed from one academic year to the next, so students should be prepared to consider alternate means to pay their tuition bill. College students often turn to alternative funding sources such as the Sallie Mae Smart Option Student Loan when college savings have been depleted. The Sallie Mae loan offers competitive interest rates and reduced interest rates for creditworthy borrowers. Little or no credit? No problem. Students can apply and qualify for the loan with a creditworthy cosigner. 

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