Having a degree can substantially increase your earning potential, but going to college can be expensive. Fortunately, help is out there. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, determines your eligibility for financial aid money for college—grants, loans, and work-study programs.
If you plan on going to college but know that you or your family can’t afford to pay for everything now, you can use financial aid to help pay for your tuition, fees, books and other expenses related to your education.
The FAFSA is a form from the U.S. Department of Education that determines students’ eligibility for financial aid. It is required by all colleges, universities and other institutions of higher education – such as trade schools – that receive funds from federal student aid programs. Many schools that offer institutional scholarships to eligible students also require students to fill out the FAFSA.
There are several different types of financial aid available. You may be eligible for money for college from the federal government, your state government, and your college itself. Many outside organizations like civic groups, religious organizations, and even employers also offer private scholarships and grants.
Different types of aid have different rules, requirements, and eligibility criteria, but the following information gives you a basic idea of what is available:
Although it was once only available in print form that had to be mailed in, the FAFSA can be submitted on the Web at https://fafsa.ed.gov. Just as its name—FREE Application—implies, there is no charge to fill out the FAFSA. Other websites with similar names may encourage you to pay for financial aid assistance or advice. Don’t be a victim—if you need help that isn’t available in the FAFSA’s Help section, speak with the financial aid department at your potential college or your high school guidance counselor!
In order to fill out the FAFSA correctly, you will need records of income earned in the year prior to the year that you will start school. If you are an independent student filling out the FAFSA for the 2013-14 school year, you will need your tax return from 2012. Dependent students will also need their parents’ tax return. (Don’t worry if you haven’t done your taxes yet—you can enter the income from pay stubs and return to make corrections once your taxes are officially filed.)
Many students make the mistake of waiting until the last minute to fill out the FAFSA. Financial aid is generally awarded on a first come, first served basis. Once the federal government, the state where you live, or the school that you will be attending has awarded all eligible funds, you can’t receive any! That is why it’s important to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible.
People also commonly make the mistake of assuming that they or their family makes too much money to qualify for financial assistance. That is true in some situations, but you never know until you try! You may also be ineligible for need-based grants, yet able to borrow money in the form of student loans. In order to receive federal student loans, you have to fill out the FAFSA.
User errors, both unintentional and—unfortunately—intentional are also common FAFSA mistakes. Be certain to enter Social Security numbers, names, addresses, and financial information correctly. Cheating on the FAFSA in hopes of receiving more money for college is a federal crime, which can cause problems much bigger than figuring out how to pay for your education.
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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