College financial aid: What is the FAFSA?

Getting accepted at a college or university can be confusing enough but applying for financial aid can be overwhelming,  particularly at one’s first glance at the FAFSA.

Just, exactly, what is the FAFSA and what purpose does it serve? Do you really need to fill it out? (Hint: the answer is yes.)

FAFSAThe Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the form families must submit to all of the colleges and universities on their list before being applying for financial aid.  

Based on the information on your FAFSA, an Expected Family Calculation (EFC), will be computed and based on that your eligibility for federal aid, most state aid programs, institutional aid and aid from private sources or organizations.

Families will be asked to complete the FAFSA with the following information:

  • Taxed and untaxed income
  • Specific assets (social security income and home equity are not considered assets)
  • Family size
  • Parental ages
  • Number of children in the family and the number in college

Families can file the FAFSA online.  It takes approximately three to four weeks for your FAFSA to be processed. You will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) after that time indicating what your family is expected to contribute to your college expenses.

The New College GuideThe New College Guide How to Get In, Get Out, and Get a Job recommends:

  • Find out before you file a FAFSA if you can afford all of the schools on your list by meeting with financial aid counselors before you file any application.
  • You can also estimate your EFC by using a financial aid calculator. Check out the Department of Education’s website.   Another useful website is BigFuture .
  • Don’t try to game the system. It never works.  Financial aid counselors have heard it all before.
  • File the FAFSA as early as possible, even before you file your income taxes. You can go  back and amend your FAFSA after your taxes are filed. You can also have your tax returns automatically and electronically transferred into your FAFSA. 
  • If you really believe the EFC does not accurately reflect your family’s contribution, you should appeal your case to the financial aid director.

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