FAFSA: How to file the most important financial aid form for college

Dhara Singh
·Reporter

Worried about paying for college? Then don’t miss out on submitting the most important financial aid form for college and graduate students.

Starting Oct. 1, the federal government begins accepting the Free Application for Financial Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA, for the 2020-21 school year.

This financial aid form determines what type of federal assistance you can receive for school, such as grants, subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and work-study programs. States, colleges and other private organizations also use the form to help award financial assistance.

Everyone in college or grad school or going next year should fill it out.

“No one should automatically assume they’re not going to qualify,” says Dana Kelly, vice president of professional development and institutional compliance at the National Institute of Financial Aid Administrators.

BOSTON - JANUARY 26: Liberty Collom, a Senior Assistant Director of Financial Aid at Boston University, center, spoke with Libby Doyle and her parents Steven, far left, and Elise as they filled out their FAFSA form. FAFSA Day took place at the Boston Public Library on Sunday, January 26, 2014. (Photo by Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - JANUARY 26: Liberty Collom, a Senior Assistant Director of Financial Aid at Boston University, center, spoke with Libby Doyle and her parents Steven, far left, and Elise as they filled out their FAFSA form. FAFSA Day took place at the Boston Public Library on Sunday, January 26, 2014. (Photo by Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Why you should fill it out

While state-level Pell grants are reserved only for those with family income of $60,000 or less, those with higher higher incomes can still qualify for federal unsubsidized loans that aren’t need-based.

“If you’re six figure income, the chances of getting need-based aid are pretty small unless you have multiple kids,” says Joseph Orsolini, financial aid expert at College Aid Planner, a college aid consulting service.

While both types of loans don’t require payments while you’re in school, unsubsidized loans accrue interest during that time. The federal government pays the interest on subsidized loans while you’re studying.

In general, federal student loans are better than private loans because they have fixed interest rates and a deferment period. Federal loans often offer many repayment plans that fit your needs after you graduate.

Many colleges and universities also use FAFSA to award scholarships, and states use the form to dish out loans and other financial assistance.

If you plan to attend community college and don’t need help paying for it, you may want to take out federal loans anyway. That’s because if you choose to transfer to a higher-priced school to complete your undergraduate degree, you can use these loans for your junior and senior years.

There’s a $7,500 cap on federal loans during those last years, but you can still use loans from your freshman and sophomore years to make up for leftover costs.

“Bank that and use that money later on,” Orsolini says.

When should I submit my FAFSA?

It depends.

Some colleges may have deadlines for their merit-based awards that occur before the FAFSA deadline of June 30, 2020. Some schools also have “finite scholarship resources,” Kelly says, so applying sooner with a completed FAFSA is better.

Additionally, states may have their own deadlines for their grants. You can visit the FAFSA website for a full list of dates.

If you’re applying for need-based aid from the federal government, waiting longer may be better when you’ve paid more expenses and have less in the bank, says Kalman Chany, author of “Paying for College” and founder of Campus Consultants Inc.

“You want to be [applying] when your family contribution can be as low as possible,” she says.

How do I fill out the FAFSA?

Submitting the FAFSA form should be less painful than your last exam and should take less than an hour to complete.

First create an FSA ID and password online at fafsa.ed.gov. If you’re feeling proactive, this can be done before the application goes live on Oct. 1. For the actual form, you’ll need to provide the following information:

  • Social Security number or Alien Registration number if you aren’t a U.S. citizen

  • Federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of earned income

  • Bank statements and records of investments, if needed

  • Records of untaxed income, if needed

If you’re considered a dependent student based on how you answer specific questions on the FAFSA form, your parents will need to provide the same information. Both parents typically need to do this if they are married or live together.

FAFSA provides other guidance if your parents are separated, divorced, remarried or widowed. If your parents need to fill out a FAFSA form for you and your brother or sister, they can transfer information from a completed FAFSA application to a new one.

If FAFSA considers you an independent student, you may need to provide a copy of your birth certificate to prove you’re over 24, Chany says. That’s because some parents in the past marked their child as an independent student to avoid reporting the parents’ income and potentially helping the child qualify for need-based aid.

If you’re married, you may be required to add your spouse’s information as well.

Have a copy of your driver's license handy, too. Lenders use this information to track down students later for loan payments, Chany says.

You must select at least one college where you want your application to be submitted. You can send the application to a maximum of 10 schools at one time. But you can return to the application and add more schools, if needed.

“Wait a day or two for it to process, then wipe and add them,” Orsolini says.

Review your application before submitting it. Tax information mistakes or typos on sensitive data like your Social Security number can delay your award letter.

“[The school] may create a flag and want to see verification,” Kelly says.

Dhara is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @dsinghx.

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