The FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the federal government’s financial aid application. Though the thought of completing it may inspire a collective groan from parents each year, this form is the prerequisite for many different types of federal and college financial aid, including loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study. So filling it out should be one of the first things on your list if your son or daughter will need some type of financial aid to attend college.
Even if you don’t think your child will qualify for aid, you should still consider submitting the FAFSA in two instances. The first is when you want your child to have some “skin in the game” by taking on a small loan. In this case, filing the FAFSA will make your child eligible for an unsubsidized Stafford Loan each year–up to $5,500 for freshmen, $6,500 for sophomores, and $7,500 for juniors and seniors. Unsubsidized Stafford Loans aren’t based on financial need and are available to any student attending college at least half-time.
The second situation for which you might file the FAFSA is when you want your child to be considered for college financial aid. Colleges generally require the FAFSA, along with the CSS Profile form, before they’ll determine whether your child is eligible for any college need-based grants and scholarships.
The FAFSA is available online at fafsa.ed.gov. A new sign-in method (as of May 2015) requires creating an FSA ID, which consists of a username and password. The FSA ID replaces the prior PIN sign-in method and is meant to be more secure.
The FAFSA should be filed as soon as possible after January 1 for both new and returning students because some aid programs operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Practically speaking, many families wait to submit the FAFSA until after they have completed their tax returns, but you don’t have to wait. The FAFSA can be submitted with estimated tax numbers and then updated later with final tax numbers by simply adding the final numbers manually or using the government’s online IRS Retrieval Tool. Regarding the filing timeline, look for a change on the horizon. Starting with the 2017/2018 school year, families will be able to file the FAFSA as early as October 2016 using their 2015 tax information.
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