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FAFSA: Why those five letters are so important for college financial aid

College students work on a computer filing the FAFSA.

Filing the FAFSA is one of the most important pieces of finding financial aid for college, and it can be done online.

It’s impossible to talk about how to make college affordable without talking about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Those five letters are a constant when it comes to figuring out how to pay for a college education.

Every year millions of students let opportunities to receive money slip away by failing to fill out the FAFSA. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 40 percent of high school seniors do not file the form.

“Filing the FAFSA at least gets you in the running for assistance. It may only be loan assistance, but you don’t know that until you complete it,” Illinois State University Assistant Director for Financial Aid Counseling Services Shawn Rigsby said.

“People are intimidated or think, ‘I’m not going to get anything anyway, so why take the time to do it?’ Well, you may only get a loan offer, but you won’t know that until you try. And life happens to all of us—your family’s financial situation might change—and being able to help in a quicker way is important.”

Even if you don’t believe your child will be eligible for need-based federal grants, there is still a lot of value in filing, including the following:

  • More students qualify than you think. Each year, approximately two million students who did not file the FAFSA would have qualified for a Federal Pell Grant—an average of $4,700 per student.
  • No federal aid? You still need the FAFSA. Even if your student doesn’t qualify for federal support, other types of financial aid—like state grants, loans, and even some merit-based scholarships—still require the FAFSA.
  • It sets up your student to find success. The FAFSA can help you acquire gift assistance that won’t require repayment or campus employment. This sets up your student to focus on his or her studies, graduate on time, and take on less debt.
  • It’s free! Filing the FAFSA costs nothing, but it can be worth thousands of dollars toward your child’s education.
At Illinois State University, the preferred filing deadline for the FAFSA is November 15. This puts your student in the best position to earn financial aid, which in the state of Illinois is distributed on a rolling basis until funds are depleted. Wait and you might receive less—or miss out on—money.

“But I heard the FAFSA is scary.”

For some, the FAFSA is intimidating, but if you and your student properly prepare, filing only takes about 30 minutes, and it can be completed online or even on your mobile device.

Available October 1, the FAFSA determines aid for the following academic year. Encourage your student to adhere to filing deadlines for his or her preferred colleges and universities. Generally speaking, it’s wise to file as soon as possible after October 1 to maximize your eligibility for available funds.

“It’s your first time doing something really adult-like, where it’s, ‘Talk about your parents’ tax returns,’ and all that stuff,” said Crystal Grzeslo, a Communication major at Illinois State University. “Most of us don’t do our own taxes. It’s a lot of those big, adult words everyone’s scared of, but you just take your time and go step by step.”

Step 1

To speed up the process, make sure you have the following information at hand: social security number, driver’s license or government ID, tax returns and W2s, records of bank statements and investments, records of untaxed income (ex., child support, veteran’s benefits, etc.) Tax information should be from two years prior to the academic year (2017 for a student applying for aid for the 2019-20 school year, for example).

Step 2

Once the necessary information is compiled, the first step is to create an FSA ID—something required of both the student and parents if the student is dependent. The FSA ID is a secure login and unique identifier that provides you and your child access to his or her personal information on U.S. Department of Education websites.

Step 3

From there, it’s just a matter of using the information to fill out the FAFSA. The information you submit will be used to determine expected family contribution (EFC), which affects your eligibility for funds from the federal government, state, and specific schools (you can use up to 10 federal school codes when filing online to have the FAFSA sent directly to schools you’re considering). Aid may then be offered in the form of grants, scholarships, loans, and maybe even a work-study job.

In the past year, Illinois State students received $56 million in need-based funds.

“It’s extremely valuable,” Grzeslo said. “Even if you don’t think you might qualify for anything, just fill it out because you never know.”

It’s just a little work for the potential of a large return, so encourage your student to file early, and take advantage of all possible financial aid resources.

Illinois State University’s preferred FAFSA filing deadline is November 15. Enter federal school code 001692 to be considered for available assistance from ISU.

Related Article: What’s the key to finding college scholarships? Whether your student is eligible for need-based aid or not, there are millions of scholarships out there to pursue.

Pursuing financial aid is about figuring out which schools are both affordable and a good fit for your student. As you figure out how those things align for your family, get monthly advice and information directly to your inbox to help you and your student figure out which college is the right fit.

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