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That translates to: file your Free Application for Federal Student Aid as soon as possible.

Not sure what a FAFSA is, take a look at my FAFSA = Financial Aid = Money for College post.

The FAFSA is the key to getting financial aid, in some cases merit aid, and in all cases a way forward in very uncertain times.

According to NerdWallet, over 600,000 Pell (federal grant) eligible students didn't complete their FAFSA leaving $2.6 billion unclaimed. That is a lot of money left waiting for students. Let's break this down.


FAFSA = Key to Financial Aid: Any student who wants to take advantage of federal aid must file a FAFSA. That aid can take many forms: student loans, parent loans, federal work-study, and federal and state grants and scholarships. It is also the key for some DACA or undocumented students to apply for in-state tuition or state aid. Although DACA students aren't eligible for federal aid, they may be able to take advantage of state aid. (DACA and undocumented students who have a Social Security Number CAN apply)

The federal FAFSA deadline is June 30 of the year the student is attending college.* Each state has its own deadlines mostly in the spring of the year the student is attending college. And the colleges themselves have their own financial aid filing deadlines. Thoroughly research college financial and application deadlines on their websites.

If a family does not file a FAFSA and their income is drastically affected, they will NOT be able to apply for any student or parent federal loans for that school year. When in doubt fill it out.

Why is this important? Look around and see what is happening to many families due to the pandemic and the unplanned-for effects on our economy. Few families are not affected by these circumstances. The FAFSA uses taxes from the prior-prior year, this tax information will not reflect lost income, increased expenses, and sudden need. What happens if a family can't pay for the next semester? They can ONLY apply for federal and state aid IF they have FIRST filed the FAFSA.

Don't think you'll need aid? If 2020 has shown us anything, even the highly improbable can happen. So file the FAFSA!


What if the FAFSA Estimate of What We Can Pay is Wrong?:

Because the FAFSA is based on a prior year's tax filing, it will not reflect the family's true economic reality during 2020. Many families have been affected by job losses, health crises, catastrophic medical bills, fire, hurricane and tornado damage, and the loss of family members. Families still have to use the older tax information, but once they receive a college financial aid award along with the student acceptance, the family can file an appeal or professional judgment request from the college/university.

Each school has its own list of requirements and proof. It is essential that students contact the college financial aid office and find out what documents or evidence they need to produce to request that the college reconsider or add to the amount of aid offered. These documents might include the last payment stub, unemployment reports, termination notices, or medical bills. Based on the information provided, and the school's own resources, financial aid officers have the discretion to make changes offering the student more aid.

Financial aid officers appreciate hearing from students. They really are there (at least the vast majority of them) to help make college accessible if they can.


FAFSA May Be Required for College Merit Aid and Private Scholarships:

Many, but not all, colleges require that a family file the FAFSA before they will make merit aid awards. Some private scholarships may require an EFC (Expected Family Contribution) to determine eligibility. The EFC is only available from the FAFSA. Why take the chance that Whatsamatta U does not demand the FAFSA? File the FAFSA.


File the FAFSA ASAP:

The FAFSA becomes available on October 1 every year. Students list the colleges they are planning on applying to on the FAFSA. The colleges on the list (yes you can add more colleges after you get an updated file notice) will receive an electronic record and will create a student profile in their system. Financial aid officers will not calculate financial awards until a student is offered a seat at the college, but filing early and having the student profile started allows the financial process to run more smoothly.

Filing early is essential for state financial aid which is awarded on a first-come-first-serve basis. State budgets are limited and especially hard hit in these difficult economic times. The earlier the FAFSA is filed, the earlier the student will know what they may get from their state. The same is true for state colleges and universities across the country who are seeing their budgets cut. Students MUST meet college financial deadlines. Not filing on time could have very costly ramifications.

File by late October or at least by the end of the year so it doesn't slip through the cracks!

Some colleges, like Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin, are need-blind. This means that the admissions folks never see whether the student has requested aid.** Other colleges are need-aware, which means admissions officers do see whether the student is requesting aid. Many schools have a limited amount of money that they can allocate for college-based scholarships, loans, grants, or awards. It is important that students who need aid are honest and upfront about it. Being accepted to a school that they cannot afford often leads to crushing debt. Students who don't get an admission's offer until after their state financial aid deadline will not get federal or state money.

Colleges do not want students to "game" the system. There are cases where a student applies saying "no" to needing financial aid, in hopes of it giving them an admission's advantage. When the student files for financial aid in their second year, the college may not provide institutional aid unless the student can prove a change in economic circumstances.

Some colleges, like Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, offer Financial Aid Guarantees. In Whitman's case***, from early August 1 through December 15, students can request an Early Financial Aid Guarantee so they can see how much financial aid and scholarship the college will offer. See Whitman.

All colleges have a "net price calculator" on their websites. The net price calculator gives an in-depth estimate of financial aid eligibility. Some also have a MyinTuition Quick Cost Estimator which gives a ballpark estimate.**** These calculators help students and families understand what their financial obligations will be for each year of college. The calculators are easier to use or require the FAFSA EFC (expected family contribution) so having that available will lead to a more accurate estimate.



File the FAFSA!

Still have questions, check out my blog post, use the helpful resources on the web at , and use the support functions available on the FAFSA itself.

When in doubt, ask questions.

Good luck, remember to breathe, pet the cat, scratch a dog's ear, hug a parent.


* If a student's freshman college year starts in Fall 2021, then they must file by June 30, 2021.

** Betsy Henkel, Beloit College Financial Aid Office

*** Karri Mickelson, Whitman College Financial Aid Office

**** Matthew Malatesta, Union College VP for Admissions, Financial Aid, and Enrollment, calculators

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