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The College Freshman’s Guide to FAFSA

Making the decision to go to college is already a scary one, and the weight of finding a way to pay for it can be even more frightening. Fortunately, the government provides you with some sort of solution, hopefully avoiding repaying with your first born child. FAFSA is Federal Student Aid, which comes in the form of grants that you don’t have to pay back and loans that you do. Some loans will have interest, and some won’t. Filling out the seemingly never-ending form is confusing enough, but then you’re left with the decision of which grants and loans to accept or not. Use this handy guide to help you through the process with hopefully less confusion and stress.

What even is FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and it’s run through the U.S. Department of Education. You just have to fill out a form with all of your life details, and it will provide you with an explanation of what aid and loans they are willing to offer you. Most states and colleges also use your FAFSA application to determine your offers for state and school aid as well.

If your parents still claim you as a dependent on their taxes, then you’re going to be judged on your parent’s financial status and their ability to fund your schooling (called the Expected Family Contribution), regardless of whether they will be contributing or not. This can either work to your advantage, or hinder your chances of receiving more funds. It’s definitely worth at least filling out no matter what your parents make, especially if you’re attending a school that offers financial assistance. Unfortunately, your application and funding is only valid for that single school year, and you must reapply each year.

The FAFSA application process

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How do I know if I’m eligible?

You can submit a FAFSA application if you meet the following qualifications:

  • You are a citizen or eligible non-citizen and have a social security number.
  • You have your high school diploma or the equivalent.
  • You are enrolled in an institution to work towards a degree or certificate.
  • You have a sufficient academic record.
  • You have not been convicted of possessing or selling illegal substances while receiving federal student aid.

These are applicable to most students; however, you may want to view the FAFSA website for more specific needs in more unique cases.

For some funding, you will also need to demonstrate a financial need for the assistance, but this will be calculated through your form using your parents’ income tax information and other factors they ask about.

What do I need for the process?

The FAFSA website has a clear list of the information you’ll need in order to submit an application:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your Alien Registration number (if you aren’t a U.S. citizen)
  • Your federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned. (Note: You may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA form using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.)
  • Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
  • Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
  • An FSA ID so you can electronically sign the FAFSA form.
  • If you’re a dependent student, then you’ll also need most of the above information for your parent(s).

Having all of this handy before beginning the form will save a lot of phone calls to mom and dad, making the process much easier on everyone involved.

You’ll also want to make sure that you have a list of all colleges you are even considering attending, as you’ll want to make sure that all of your colleges receive copies of your FAFSA. This is especially important if money is a factor in your decision, as it may determine your funding for specific schools.

I submitted the application. Now what?

Once you have completed the form, you just have to sit back and wait for your report to come out, which should only take about 3-5 days. When you get your Student Aid Report, be sure to double check that everything is correct and submit changes if needed.

Your college will then provide you with a financial aid award letter that explains the cost to attend their institution and what funding and loans you are being offered. Most often, you’ll receive this around the time you get your acceptance letter, depending on your college and when you submit your application.

Breakdown of the types of funding offered

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Now it’s time to view your Student Aid Report and make decisions about what you will accept. The types of funding can be broken down into three main categories: grants, loans, and work-study programs.

Federal Grants

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This is the ideal type of financial aid. It’s quite literally free money that the government gives you in order to attend school. It does not need to be repaid, as long as you don’t break any of the rules that they will inform you of before accepting the money (mostly concerning early withdrawal). This is the category that is most dependent upon your financial need. There are four types of grants that FAFSA awards.

Federal Pell Grants

Federal Pell Grants are awarded to students that have more financial need because of a lack of parental contribution. To decide how much you will receive, they calculate the cost of attending your specific institution, whether you will be full-time or part-time, and how long you plan to attend. The maximum amount you could receive for the 2019-2020 school year was $6,195, and that’s just for one year. Pell Grants can be a large source of a student’s ability to pay for college if needed.

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)

This grant it only going to come from your school itself, and not all colleges participate. Each school only has a limited amount of money to award, so most students receive anywhere from $100-$4,000 with priority going to those with the most financial need

Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH)

As the name suggests, this grant is only given to students taking certain classes and are enrolled in a TEACH-Grant-eligible program. These programs train students to teach in high-need fields, such as ESL/Foreign languages, math, science, and special education, specifically while obtaining your Bachelor’s. This grant does come with some stipulations. You must agree that after receiving your degree, you will go on to teach in a high-need field at a low income school for at least four years. Not meeting these post-grad requirements will result in you having to pay the grant back. TEACH Grants can be awarded in amounts up to $4,000.

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant

This grant is specifically for students whose parent/guardian died in military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11 occurred. You must also not demonstrate need for the Pell Grant but still meet the requirements for it. Finally, you have to have been under 24 or enrolled in college part-time or full-time at the time of their death. This award amount is equivalent to the Pell Grant’s maximum amount.

Federal Loans

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Loans, as the name suggests, must be paid back. While still attending college, you do not have to make contributions to the amount you owe; however, once you graduate, you’ll need to work out a plan to begin paying the loans back 6 months after graduation. The U.S. Department of Education provides two types of federal loans.

Direct Subsidized Loans

These loans are the ideal type; they don’t incur interest. Well, technically it does, but the U.S. Department of Education pays it for you as long as you’re in school at least part-time. They’re also going to pay it for the first six months after you leave school, after which it’s time to start paying the loans back, and if you receive a deferment on paying your loans back. Once you start making payments, however, that interest is now your responsibility. On the bright side, the government makes an effort to keep these interest rates low for you, so it’s going to be a 4.53% interest rate. These ones aren’t based off of your financial need, but you can’t take out more loans than the amount they determine you need for school.

Direct Unsubsidized Loans

These ones aren’t as fun. You’re incurring interest on these even while you’re in school. Honestly, that’s pretty much the only difference between the two. It also has an interest rate of 4.53% and cannot exceed the amount of your need for school, which is determined by your college.

Work-Study Funding

This program basically guarantees you a part-time job whether on or off-campus for you to earn your own money while attending school. They provide you with a maximum amount for each semester, and you work out a schedule with your employer to earn that money on an hourly basis. You’ll at least be making minimum wage for your state. They’ll also try to place you in a role where you are either providing a service to your community or something that is relevant to what you’re studying.

So what should I accept?

shallow focus photography of bookshelfs

This is going to be different for each student. It all depends on your financial need, if you intend on working throughout school, and how much money you expect to be making after graduation.

When it comes to grants, as long as you’re willing to agree to their stipulation of not withdrawing from the semester you received funds from, you should definitely accept these. It’s just money the government is providing you with to help you get the education you want. As long as you stay in school, there’s no reason not to take this.

Loans are when you need to make big-time decisions, especially concerning your ability to pay in the future, which can be difficult. If you only want to accept one, be sure that it’s the subsidized loan, as you’ll save yourself a lot of money in the long run without interest. When it comes to how much you’ll accept, because you can choose to accept only a partial amount of what you’re offered, you need to sit down and evaluate the cost of school, parental contributions, any jobs you may hold or extra income, and what you expect to be able to pay in the future.

Calculate the cost of not only tuition and other university costs, but also cost for housing, food, books, groceries, and other school supplies. Subtract any other source of money you’ll be getting, and that’s how much you need to take out. However, if you are offered more than that, you may make the decision to accept it all just in case. If you do this, I would suggest placing the extra money in a different account so that you’re not tempted to use it, but it’s there for emergencies. Then, if you haven’t used it by the end of your schooling, you’re able to pay it right back. Decide if the interest you’ll incur throughout the period doesn’t outweigh that benefit though. Keep in mind that your school has already determined how much you should need during your time at their college, and you should receive that much.

Work-study programs are also beneficial, as they allow you to make the money without interest, as well as develop skills in your field or to better your community. This is something extra to add to your resume that will give you an advantage in your career field. Be sure to consider how much extra time you’ll have outside of class and studying, and then decide if you’ll have the time to hold a job. They will work with your school schedule, so it shouldn’t be too much of an extra burden, but don’t put yourself through extra stress if you don’t need it. However, if you think you can handle the time and effort and you’re in need of the money, this is a great resource to use to pay for your schooling.

What are my other options?

eyeglasses on book beside laptop

These are just the options that the government offers. Every student should apply to as many scholarships as they possibly can. Scholarships are obviously a great source of financial help, and winning them can look good on your resume as well.

You may also want to look into a part-time job where you can learn skills relevant to your field and make some extra money. Most campuses have lots of on-campus jobs that will work around your class schedule and are usually more understanding about your busy schedule than other places. It may be difficult, but finding a job where you have downtime to complete homework is a perfect situation. If you can handle the stress of school and work, jobs will fluff your resume and help you get familiar with the world of employment.

There are also private loans, but you have to be very careful to ensure that they’re from legit sources and don’t have crazy high interest rates.

flat lay photography of blue backpack beside book and silver MacBook

Paying for school is really, really intimidating. These choices, particularly when it comes to taking out loans, can be something you’re responsible for through years to come. Really evaluate how much money you expect to need and decide what will work best for your situation. It’s also helpful that this is something you apply for and reevaluate every school year, so you can adjust your plan if needed. Take your time to make these decisions, and then focus on getting an education.

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