There are many sources of financial aid available to college-bound students from federal and state governments, as well as colleges and universities, including grants, loans, and work-study programs. To determine their eligibility for these programs, you must apply, and the most important application is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
The financial information students (and in the case of dependent students, their parents) submit on the FAFSA form is used by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Federal Student Aid to calculate the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) , an index used to determine the student's eligibility for financial assistance. Your selected school will coordinate your aid from the federal student aid programs as well as any financial aid from your state or college.
Keep in mind the deadlines for applying for financial aid vary between federal, state and college programs. The federal deadline for student aid applications for the 2015-2016 academic year is June 30, 2015. In New Jersey, however, the deadline for state tuition aid applications is June 1, 2015. The deadline for financial aid applications for your chosen college may be earlier. You should check with each school that you are applying to as well since their deadlines may be earlier or later.
Check federal and state deadlines on the Education Resource Organizations Directory (http://tinyurl.com/laqdgdh). Contact your schools' financial aid offices for their deadlines. Students who apply for aid well before the deadlines have a greater chance of receiving support. The bottom line: early is better.
Obtaining and Completing the FAFSA
There are three ways to complete your FAFSA: 1) Online (recommended); 2) by filling out a Downloadable PDF FAFSA; or 3) with a Paper FAFSA , available by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 319-337-5665. The PDF and paper forms must be mailed and take about four to six days to process. The online form takes about three days to process and is the recommended way to complete the FAFSA. The online form and PDF can be found at www.fafsa.gov.
The FAFSA can seem intimidating: there are a total 105 questions on this year's form. Students and their families will be asked for a lot of financial information, much of it based on their 2014 tax returns. If you have not yet filed your 2014 returns, you can use your 2013 income tax returns to provide estimates of your 2014 income. Again, applying early is better. Don't wait until the April 15 tax filing deadline to submit your FAFSA, since state and college financial aid deadlines may occur before then. You can revise the FAFSA later when the 2014 tax return has been filed.
Don't be afraid of the FAFSA! The FAFSA uses logic that limits the questions asked to those pertinent to your situation. For example, if you indicate that you won't be filing a tax return this year, the FAFSA will skip the questions related to the tax return. This logic helps minimize the number of questions that students and families are asked.
In addition, the online FAFSA has a help bar for each and every question on the FAFSA so that you always have assistance at your fingertips.
For detailed information on how to complete the FAFSA, download a copy of Completing the FAFSA® 2015-16, available here.
What Happens After Your FAFSA is Submitted?
It takes the Office of Federal Student Aid approximately three days to send the information containing your family's EFC information to the school or schools you select on the FAFSA.
The schools will use this information to determine your eligibility for all forms of financial aid --federal grants, loans, work study, and funding from your state and school -- and will put together an individualized, comprehensive financial aid package for you once you are admitted. Financial aid packages will vary from school to school based on variables, including tuition and availability of funds.
Some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so the earlier you submit your FAFSA, the better. Keep in mind you do not need to be admitted to a particular institution to submit the FAFSA. You can choose to be extremely selective or to cast a wide net when deciding which colleges will receive your information.
If you need more help go to FAFSA on the Web at www.fafsa.gov. The "Help" page lists all of the options for getting additional assistance. There is a secure online chat function to communicate with a customer service representative. You can call FAFSA Customer Service at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). (TTY users can call 1-800-730-8913.) Or you can e-mail the Office of Federal Student Aid with any technical issues you may have while you are completing the application. The address is FederalStudentAidCustomerService@ed.gov.
More information about college financial aid programs in 2015 can be found in Centenary's free downloadable eBook, Navigating the World of College Student Financial Aid at www.centenarycollege.edu/AidEbook.