By Leticia Tomas Bustillos, Associate Director, Education Policy Project, NCLR
It’s that time of year across schools and the countdown has begun. High school seniors have left behind the exciting, panic-inducing college application process and now the wait begins for those eagerly anticipated college letters and, of course, the merriment of the last few months in school. Still others may still be trying to figure things out, not knowing for certain what their path will be post-high school. For everyone, the decided and the undecided alike, I have one question: Have you filled out the FAFSA?
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is probably the singular most important document you need to think about today. It will open the doors of higher education by giving you access to federal student aid. For many students across the country, the cost of college is a huge concern. With rising tuition costs combined with everyday expenses, going to college may seem like an impossible dream for students. But it doesn’t have to be. In filling out the FAFSA, students are able to access much-needed aid in the form of grants and loans that will help cover the costs of college.
Unfortunately, too many students leave money on the table. In 2011–12, almost two million students who would have been eligible for a Pell Grant and other state and institutional grants totaling more than $10 billion did not receive aid because they did not complete the FAFSA.
So, let’s begin and get you ready to fill out the FAFSA, change this trend, and get you the aid that will help get you through college.
First, and perhaps the most important: the FAFSA is free. There are no fees involved. Some companies will charge you a “small fee” to help you fill out the form. Stay away from them. Instead, go to a trusted source (teacher, counselor, community center) that will help you navigate the process. The Department of Education has developed many resources and a number of videos that will walk you through the process, which should take approximately 30 minutes to complete.
Second, be prepared. The first thing you will need to do will be to create your FSA ID, which will allow you to access and update the FAFSA as needed. If you are a dependent of your parents, they will also need to create an FSA ID. In addition, you will need a number of documents to fill out the form:
- Your Social Security number
- Your Alien Registration Number (if you aren’t a U.S. citizen)
- Your most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned (Note: If you’re eligible, you can transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.)
Third, know the deadlines for submitting your forms. You can apply for federal student aid anytime between January 1 and June 30, 2016. States and institutions have different deadlines that are important to be aware of, as certain grants and other forms of aid may be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. The earlier you submit the FAFSA, the better. However, don’t give up if you’ve missed the deadline. Turn it in anyway and you may still be eligible for funds. Click here for a document with state deadlines that you can print and keep as a reference.
I have talked to many students across the country about their hopes and dreams. They understand the value of a college degree to secure a better future. “Can I afford college?” is the one constant question I get. Filling out the FAFSA is a first step to answering this, as you become more aware of your college financing options. Knowledge is power—knowing your options now will help you make important decisions about your future.