Everything You Need to Know about the FAFSA in 2018 Steps, Problem Solving & Expert Advice for College Financial Aid

Meet the Experts

Mark Kantrowitz Read bio
Ronald Ramsdell Read bio

Written by…

Rob Sabo Read bio

The cost of a college education has soared in the past 20 years. According to the College Board, students in 1990 paid an average of just over $1,900 per year for in-state tuition at public four-year universities. In 2017, average tuition at those same schools was a bit shy of $10,000.

Many students turn to federal financial aid such as student loans or PELL grants to help pay for college. However, filling out the Required Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, can seem like a daunting process. Students and parents can use this guide to seamlessly navigate the entire FAFSA process, as well as gain crucial insight into common mistakes applicant’s make and expert advice about the FAFSA.

FAFSA FAQ

Below are many of the most common questions students and parents have about filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Read on to learn more about tips and strategies to successfully complete the FAFSA and avoid common missteps and miscues that can lead to delays in completing the document and receiving federal financial aid.

Student financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz provides insight on many of these questions. Kantrowitz has written about financial aid for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Reuters, U.S. News & World Report, Money, Newsweek and Time. He also is the author of four bestselling books about financial aid.

Steps to Filling out the FAFSA

Filling out the FAFSA doesn’t have to be a long and difficult process – applicants who follow these steps will find themselves at the end of the application in short order. The majority of students and their families complete the FAFSA online, the Department of Education reports. Students and parents can download a PDF version of the FAFSA and mail it in, or order a complete printed version of the document by calling (800) 4FED-AID.

Next Steps

Whew – you’ve successfully navigated more than 100 questions and completed the FAFSA! You’re almost in the clear — just a bit of housekeeping and the ball is completely out of your court.

Confirmation

Applicants who successfully complete and submit the FAFSA will see a confirmation page when filing online. Oftentimes, a link appears for students to complete a state financial aid application as well, since many states require applicants to complete a second application to determine state-level aid eligibility.

The confirmation page also includes an option to have parental or custodial information electronically transferred to another FAFSA, which can save a great deal of time for parents who have multiple children seeking federal financial aid.

Once all FAFSA and state-level aid applications are completed, the information is sent to the financial aid offices of the colleges and universities students list on their FAFSA. Information also is sent to the higher education agency in students’ home states, as well as the states where they’ve applied to school. Students and parents can always check the status of their FAFSA by logging back in to the fafsa.gov site.

Student Aid Report

Next, students and parents should keep an eye out for a Student Aid Report that summarizes the data they submitted on the FAFSA, as well as provides basic information about aid eligibility. Applicants who included an email address will get a notification about accessing their SAR online, which is usually ready in about three days to three weeks after submitting a completed FAFSA. The document is also sent via postal mail to applicants who did not include an email address.

Verification

Some applicants – especially those who did not use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, as noted by our financial aid expert above – may be selected to verify the data they submitted on the FAFSA. This doesn’t mean applicants have done anything wrong; rather, their prospective schools are seeking additional documentation to ensure accuracy on the FAFSA. Applications also can be selected randomly for verification. Be sure to provide all pertinent documentation and data by the requested deadline, or applicants might be ineligible to receive federal and state-level financial aid.

Award Letters and Accepting Financial Aid

Students who have been accepted to the schools they listed on their FAFSA will receive an award letter from that institution’s financial aid office. This award letter informs them how much and what types of aid they are eligible to receive, such as grants, loans and Federal Work-Study. The timing of award letters is dependent upon on several factors, including when students applied for aid, and the institution’s method of awarding aid. Eligible students must determine what types aid to accept.

Distribution

Monies are dispersed directly to colleges and universities, which then distribute funds to students once all institutional fees are paid. Students should note that financial aid could be reduced if they drop classes once the semester begins, especially if they fall under full-time status, and they may be required to pay back financial aid funds.

From the Expert

Ronald Ramsdell is the founder of College Aid Consulting Services in Minneapolis. He’s spent more 27 years advocating for improvements in the identification of financial aid opportunities and matching the right programs to family’s needs.

Ramsdell provides insight into two crucial areas of the FAFSA process: The importance of filing early, and three common mistakes to avoid when filing out the FAFSA.

The Importance of Filing Early

For the 2018-2019 academic year, the federal deadline to file a FAFSA is June 30, 2019. Families think they have that much time to do the FAFSA, but that’s a federal deadline. Families need to go by their college’s deadline, and some college have January deadlines, some have February deadlines, and others have March deadlines.

File as soon as possible to meet college and state deadlines. Various states have earlier deadlines than college deadlines. If you file later, you have the potential to miss out on state or institutional aid. Families also need to be aware that some colleges have their own institutional form they use to determine institutional aid, and it benefits applicants to file early so they can be aware of that potential extra step.

3 Common Mistakes Made by Families When Filling out the FAFSA

Avoid these three common mistakes that often discount families from receiving good gift aid from colleges.

  1. 1.     Listing retirement investments and annuities as investments.

    Families are not required to list these as assets. The formula that crunches numbers for the FAFSA does not assess retirement plans and annuities, but if families put in these numbers under investments it’s going to needlessly raise their EFC calculation, and that means less eligibility for aid.

  2. 2.     Listing incorrect social security numbers.

    If you are off by just one digit, it messes up the whole process. It takes an act of Congress to get everything right. Parents or students will be on phone numerous and lengthy times trying to get situation rectified. Make sure you put down the right social security numbers.

  3. 3.     Listing the wrong household for students living with divorce-separated parents.

    Using the incorrect household’s financial data can increase or decrease financial aid immensely. If it’s a 50-50 situation where the student resides with both families, use the custodial parent household information that has the lower wages and assets. If you have a situation where a dependent spends 70 to 80 percent with one parent, obviously you need to use the parent where the student resides. But if it’s 50-50, use the lower one.

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