The Top 10 FAFSA Q&A

FAFSA Top Ten Frequently Asked QuestionsiGrad has compiled a Top 10 list of FAFSA-related FAQs based on some of the most commonly asked questions by students and parents. Here you can find the answers to your important financial aid questions with all the key information you need to easily tackle the FAFSA as an informed seeker of financial aid.

Click on a question in the list below to jump to an individual answer or scroll through to read all ten questions and answers.

1.) What is financial aid?
2.) How much financial aid am I able to receive?
3.) What does EFC stand for and what does it mean?
4.) What is the FAFSA and how do I fill it out?
5.) I don’t think I will qualify for aid. Should I file a FAFSA?
6.) When should I fill out the FAFSA? Every year?
7.) Who do I contact if I need help with my FAFSA?
8.) When and how will I receive my financial aid award letter?
9.) What qualifies a student as dependent or independent?
10.) Where can I find out more about financial aid?

 

1.) What is financial aid?



Financial aid is funding for students to help pay for their educated-related expenses. This includes room and board, transportation, tuition, fees, supplies, and books. The forms in which financial aid can be issued are through grants, scholarships, loans and work-study.

To understand how valuable financial aid can be in helping pay for college, check out the Department of Education's college "Shopping Sheet," a form that students can fill out with the details of the estimated cost of attending a university and the financial aid the student could receive to lessen this cost.

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2.) How much financial aid am I able to receive?



Eligibility for Financial AidYour eligibility for financial aid depends on your expected family contribution (EFC), your enrollment status, what year you are in school, and the cost of attendance for the school you will be going to. Once you have filled out the FAFSA and the results are given to the school the financial aid office will then determine how much financial aid you will be awarded.

The way in which you will receive your aid will depend on the form of aid you are issued (grants, scholarships, work study and loans, as listed in the answer to question one).

In the case of grants, the college typically first applies your grant or loan money toward your tuition, fees, and (if you live on campus) room and board. Any money left over is paid to you for other expenses. You might be able to choose whether the leftover money comes to you by check, cash, a credit to your bank account, or another method. If your loan is disbursed but then you realize that you don’t need the money after all, you may cancel your loan within 120 days of the disbursement, and no interest or fees will be charged.

In the case of work-study, your school must pay you directly (for instance, by cash or check) unless you request that the school a.) send your payments directly to your bank account or b.) use the money to pay for education-related charges (such as tuition, fees, and room and board) on your student account.

In the case of a Parent PLUS loan, most likely your child's school will disburse your loan money by crediting it to your child's school account to pay tuition, fees, room, board, and other authorized charges. If there is money left over, the school will pay it to you, usually by check. In some cases, with your permission, the school may disburse the leftover money to your child.

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3.) What does EFC stand for and what does it mean?



EFC stands for Expected Family Contribution. This is the amount that the family is expected to contribute to the cost of your education. You will know what your EFC is once you have finished filling out the FAFSA. This number will assist the school you are attending in determining how much financial aid you will be eligible for.

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4.) What is the FAFSA and how do I fill it out?



Fill Out the FAFSA OnlineThe FAFSA is a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA will determine the amount of aid and what type of aid you will receive for your cost of attendance for the school(s) you are applying for. You can access this application online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. If you would like a paper FAFSA, you can download a PDF FAFSA or order a paper FAFSA. This application, again, is FREE. If you are on a website that is asking you for money you are on the wrong website. Ask the financial aid office at your college or career school if you can file it there. Some schools will use special software to submit your FAFSA for you.    

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5.) I don’t think I will qualify for aid. Should I file a FAFSA?



Even if you don’t think you will qualify for aid it is always a good idea to fill out the FAFSA, given that you meet the eligibility criteria. Regardless of income, most families are eligible for multiple types of aid, such as federal loans (Stafford and PLUS), and students are frequently surprised by the amount of aid for which they qualify. Filing is free, and unless you apply, you'll never know how much assistance you may be eligible to receive. It is always smart to take the appropriate steps when it comes to paying for your education. Regardless of what you or your parents might make, the FAFSA should be filled out every year.

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6.) When and how often should I fill out the FAFSA?



The FAFSA becomes available in early January each year, and there are different deadlines for different programs.

Aid Program

Deadline Information

Federal student aid For the 2014–15 year, online applications must be submitted by midnight Central Time, June 30, 2015. Any corrections or updates must be submitted by midnight Central Time, September 19, 2015.
State student aid You can find state deadlines at www.fafsa.gov.
College or career school aid Check the school’s website or contact its financial aid office. School deadlines are usually early in the year (often in February or March).
Other financial aid Some programs other than government or school aid require that you file the FAFSA. For instance, you can’t get certain private scholarships unless you’re eligible for a Federal Pell Grant—and you can’t find out whether you’re eligible for a Pell Grant unless you file a FAFSA. If the private scholarship’s application deadline is in early to mid-January, you’ll need to submit your FAFSA before that deadline.

Source: U.S. Department of Education Federal Student Aid Office

You have to fill out the FAFSA every year you’re in school in order to stay eligible for federal student aid. Because the FAFSA does ask for the prior year’s tax information it is best to have filed your taxes (as well as your parents if you are a dependent student) before you fill out the FAFSA. You can also fill out the FAFSA with estimates but you will need to go back in to enter the correct information or you could be asked for documented proof of the estimates should you be selected for verification.

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7.) Who do I contact if I need help with my FAFSA?



Who to Contact for FAFSA AssistanceIn order to receive assistance on the FAFSA you can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID or email them at FederalStudentAidCustomerService@ed.gov. The information center also has a Live Help feature where you can chat online with customer service representatives who will help answer your questions. Click here for all of the Federal Student Aid Center's available contact options. The financial aid office at your school is another great resource for any FAFSA help you might need.

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8.) When & how will I receive my award letter? Financial aid?



The Award Letter

Once you have filled out the FAFSA and listed the schools for which you are applying to you will then receive an award letter from that school. Award letters are most commonly distributed during the spring of each year. The award letter will list the details of the financial aid that you are eligible for. The award letter will give you a breakdown of the cost of attendance for that particular school minus the estimated family contribution which will then leave you with the types of financial aid you are able to receive. Once you have received the award letter the school may often ask you to accept the amount of financial aid you would like to use towards your expenses. For example, should you choose not to use loans as a form of payment for your education you will have the option to decline this award on your award letter.

The Financial Aid

Once you accept your award letter you will be set to receive the financial aid you have been awarded. Generally, your grant or loan will cover a full academic year and your school will disburse (pay out) your money in at least two payments called disbursements. In most cases, your school must pay you at least once per term (semester, trimester, or quarter). Schools that don’t use traditional terms such as semesters or quarters usually must pay you at least twice per academic year—for instance, at the beginning and midpoint of your academic year. Depending on the type of aid and the type of borrower you are, the disbursements may vary:

  • If you’re a parent taking out a Direct PLUS Loan to help pay for your child’s education expenses, your loan funds will be disbursed according to the same type of schedule (usually, at least twice per academic year).
  • If you’re a first-year undergraduate student and a first-time borrower, you may have to wait 30 days after the first day of your enrollment period (semester, trimester, etc.) for your first disbursement. Check with your school to see whether this rule applies there.
  • If you’re a first-time borrower of a Direct Subsidized Loan or a Direct Unsubsidized Loan, you must complete entrance counseling before you receive your first loan disbursement. Similarly, if you are a graduate or professional student taking out a Direct PLUS Loan for the first time, you must complete entrance counseling before receiving your first disbursement. If you are a parent taking out a Direct PLUS Loan to help pay for your child’s education, you will not be required to participate in entrance counseling.
  • If you’re going to have a work-study job, you’ll be paid at least once a month.

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9.) What qualifies a student as dependent or independent?



Criteria for Independent or Dependent Student Status on FAFSAThere are very specific criteria set by the Department of Education when it comes to determining whether you are a dependent or independent student. Here are the 2013–14 questions that determine your dependency status:

  • Were you born before the date January 1, 1989?    
  • Are you married? (Answer “Yes” if you are separated but not divorced.)
  • At the beginning of the 2014–15 school year, will you be working on a master’s or doctorate degree program (such as an M.A., M.B.A., M.D., J.D., Ph.D., Ed.D., graduate certificate, etc.)?
  • Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training? (If you are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee, are you on active duty for other than state or training purposes?)
  • Are you a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?*
  • Do you have children who will receive more than half of their support from you between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2015?
  • Do you have dependents (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you, now and through June 30, 2015?
  • At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a dependent or ward of the court?
  • Has it been determined by a court in your state of legal residence that you are an emancipated minor or that you are in a legal guardianship?
  • At any time on or after July 1, 2011, were you determined to be an unaccompanied youth who was homeless, as determined by (a) your high school or district homeless liaison or (b) the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development?**
  • At any time on or after July 1, 2011, did the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?**

If you answered yes to any of these questions then for federal student aid purposes, you’re considered to be an independent student and will not provide information about your parents on the FAFSA.

If you answered no to every question then for federal student aid purposes, you’re considered to be a dependent student, and you must provide information about your parents on the FAFSA. Not living with parents or not being claimed by them on tax forms does not make you an independent student for purposes of applying for federal student aid.

If you feel that you are in a situation where you should be classified as an independent student you will need to contact the school’s financial aid office. The school will get the proper documentation if a dependency override is necessary.

* Answer No (you are not a veteran) if you (1) have never engaged in active duty in the U.S. armed forces, (2) are currently a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) student or a cadet or midshipman at a service academy, (3) are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee activated only for state or training purposes, or (4) were engaged in active duty in the U.S. armed forces but released under dishonorable conditions. Also answer No if you are currently serving in the U.S. armed forces and will continue to serve through June 30, 2013.
Answer Yes (you are a veteran) if you (1) have engaged in active duty in the U.S. armed forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard) or are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee who was called to active duty for other than state or training purposes, or were a cadet or midshipman at one of the service academies and (2) were released under a condition other than dishonorable. Also answer Yes if you are not a veteran now but will be one by June 30, 2013.

**If you do not have a determination that you are homeless, but you believe you are an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless, answer “No” to the FAFSA questions concerning being homeless. Then contact your financial aid office to explain your situation.

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10.) Where can I find out more about financial aid?



Find Help on the FAFSAThere are many different resources out there that can assist with your research on what types of financial aid are available to you. The internet is always a good research tool to help you learn about new ways to secure money to cover the costs of college. The financial aid office at the school you are attending will be able to assist you in your search as well—whether it be assistance with scholarships, grants, work study, or student loans, your school is there to help. By filling out the FAFSA and working with the financial aid department at your school you will be on the right track to identifying all of the financial aid options available to you.

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About the Author: Mackenzie Maher

Mackenzie Maher, Editor and Online Content Manager, graduated in 2010 from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a BA in Global Studies and a minor in Professional Writing, with an editing emphasis. Mackenzie’s diverse portfolio also includes writing, editing, photography, and documentary script writing on such subjects as travel, career, and finance. Next to writing, she is most passionate about world travel (she has visited 24 countries).

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