How College Financial Aid Works

How Do I Apply for Need-Based Aid?

Students waiting in line at financial aid office.
Tony Dejak/AP Images
If there are any extenuating circumstances affecting your ability to pay for college, your school's financial aid office should be able to help.

There are two need-based aid applications being used nationally, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Scholarship Service's PROFILE. The FAFSA is the application for all federal funds and is required by all institutions of higher learning. Many institutions will require complete copies of your most recent tax and W-2 forms.

The PROFILE, which is generally viewed as the application for private or institutional funds, is required by many -- but not all -- institutions. If you're applying to a college whose aid awards include significant levels of institutional funding, there is a good chance that the school will require both forms. If you're unsure which form(s) is required, check with your school's financial aid office.

The FAFSA and the PROFILE rely heavily on numbers from your income tax returns. If you're applying as a dependent of your parents, then the numbers will come from your parents' tax returns. If you are applying as an independent, then use your own tax returns.

In addition to income and asset information, each form also collects demographic data including family size, parent age, number of students in college and other related information. You're also invited to provide each school with information on any extenuating circumstances that affect your family's ability to support educational expenses. Take advantage of the opportunity to provide this information by writing directly to the college(s) you're considering. Don't be shy -- others won't be.