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Everything Parents of College Applicants Need to Know About FAFSA

The prospect of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) sounds as enticing as having teeth pulled with rusty pliers, but if you have a child about to attend college, this is a very necessary extraction. The good news is, if you’re reading this, you have access to the internet, and the online application process has become so much easier over the years. You can even apply on a mobile app. It’s still not exactly fun, but the rewards — loans, grants, work-study, and other help paying for college — are so worth it. Here, we’ll walk you through some of the FAFSA basics and frequently asked questions.

Who should fill out a FAFSA?

All students who are citizens or permanent residents, even other non-citizen students, who are about to enter college should fill out a FAFSA form, even if you think your family makes too much to qualify for federal aid. While the maximum household income to qualify for a Federal Pell Grant is around $50,000, you may be surprised to learn that your child does, in fact, qualify for a subsidized or unsubsidized loan. Schools, states, and other scholarship funds also often use the FAFSA information to determine other financial aid benefits.

As to who should fill out the form itself, this should probably be a joint effort between you and your kid. It’s technically the student who applies, and they will need to sign up for an FSA ID. But if you are the child’s legal parent and claim them as a dependent, you can also get your own FSA ID to help fill in your financial information. Get those IDs here.

If you and your child’s other parent are married, fill out the information for both of you. If you and your child’s other parent are divorced or unmarried, the parent who provided the most support for the past 12 months is the person whose info they need. There are a lot of other nuances about parents that do or don’t live together, so if your situation is complicated, check out this page for more information.

Male students (and students assigned male at birth) between the ages of 18-25 will need to have signed up for Selective Service or they’ll have to check the option to be automatically registered for it when submitting the form, as that’s also a requirement for federal aid.

One good thing to know is that students can enter zeros for the Social Security number of undocumented parents, if necessary.

When is the FAFSA due?

The federal FAFSA deadline for the 2020-2021 school year is June 30, so you probably shouldn’t put it off any longer. Many other deadlines, for aid from states and individual schools, may have already passed for the coming school year. Check this page for state deadlines, and contact the schools’ financial aid offices for more information.

If you’re planning for the 2021-2022 school year, the earliest you can start filling out the FAFSA is on October 1.

Even if you haven’t filed last year’s taxes, don’t delay submitting the FAFSA. You can use estimated taxes and amend it later. You have until September 12, 2021 to make changes to your 2020-2021 information.

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FAFSA mobile app. Image: U.S. Department of Education. U.S. Department of Education.

What information should you gather?

You and your child will need:

  • A list of the schools you’d like to receive the FAFSA info (regardless of acceptance status).
  • Student’s Social Security number
  • Student’s driver’s license number or state ID
  • Student’s tax information from the previous year (2018 for the 2020-21 school year)
  • Student’s records of untaxed income
  • Student’s current bank statements
  • Student’s current investments
  • Parents’ tax information from the previous year
  • Parents’ records of untaxed income
  • Parents’ net worth and investment information
  • Parents’ current bank statements

Hot Tip: Use the magical IRS tool

Sometimes, the fact that the government knows everything about you can work to your advantage. If you’re filling out the FAFSA online, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to have your previous year’s tax information automatically imported to the FAFSA form.

What if something changes?

The financial information the FAFSA asks for is based on last year’s income. We all know a lot has changed in the world since then. If your household income has gone down due to job loss or other financial hardship, you should contact the school’s financial aid office directly to tell them what’s up. They’ll take this into account when determining aid packages.

What happens next?

After your child submits the form, you can go back to the FAFSA site to check on the status of the application. You’ll receive a Student Aid Report, a summary of the form, anywhere between three days and three weeks after it’s submitted. This is your chance to double and triple check that everything is correct. You may also have to verify the information you submitted with additional documentation (sometimes this happens at random, so be prepared).

Next, it’s up to the schools that have accepted your child to send you a financial aid offer, using the cost of attendance (tuition, room, board, other expenses) and your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). If you want to try to figure out what that EFC is in advance, you can use this worksheet or one of the calculators available online.

It’s up to you and your child whether to accept the aid offered. If the offer isn’t enough, you can appeal to the school for more funding (which, unfortunately, may come in the form of a bigger loan). It’s always worth a shot to ask for more help. Much of the aid will go straight to the school your child attends, but your student may also receive funds directly to pay for expenses like food and books.

Finally, keep all that information handy and get ready to do it all again next year!

While they’re still at home, here are 75 books your kids will love to read, from baby to teen.

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