According to an October 2009 article by the Washington Post, the average annual tuition rate is $26,273 at private colleges and $7,020 at public schools. These staggering figures can leave students wondering how they're going to pay for an education, and they may leave others feeling shut out from higher education altogether.
Even more alarming is the rate at which college costs are increasing. From 2008 to 2009, costs increased 6.5 percent at public colleges and 4.4 percent at private institutions. In the previous decade, from 1998 to 2008, annual costs only increased an average of 4.9 percent and 2.6 percent at public and private colleges, respectively [source: Anderson and de Vise].
Fortunately, as college costs have risen, so has the availability of financial aid. With billions of dollars up for grabs, students have more opportunities than ever to keep up with the rising cost of college tuition. "Free money" is available in the form of scholarships, grants and fellowships, which students don't have to pay back. For even more assistance, students can turn to low-interest loans, which are often funded by the state or federal government to make higher education more accessible.
Of course, before you can receive any kind of financial aid, you have to apply for it. For most students, this process begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA. This form is a one-stop-shop type of application and enables students to apply for a wide variety of aid all at once.
One of the most important parts of the financial aid process is understanding application deadlines for the FAFSA and other forms. Even the student with the greatest need should expect to receive little or no financial assistance if the FAFSA is submitted past the deadline. Because these deadlines can vary by state, it's critical to stay on top of your financial aid applications to maximize your chances for receiving the best financial aid package possible.
To learn more about completing the FAFSA and meeting financial aid application deadlines, read on to the next section.
In the United States, the average student's financial aid journey begins with a single application. The Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) may be one of the most important forms a student fills out, even more important than all those college applications.
The FAFSA is distributed and processed by the federal government and must be completed annually by every student seeking aid. First-year students fill out a new FAFSA, while returning students complete an abbreviated form known as a Renewal FAFSA. Though it may seem like a chore to keep completing this form each year, every FAFSA you fill out means a new chance for increased student aid, which may reduce your out-of-pocket costs.
But how can a single form be so important? The FAFSA is the primary source that the federal government uses to determine how student aid should be distributed. With more than $100 billion available each year, there's a good chance for almost any student to qualify for some assistance [source: US Department of Education].
The information provided on a FAFSA also affects your out-of-pocket costs and is used by state governments and the colleges themselves in developing aid packages for students. A student who fails to complete the FAFSA or misses the deadline shouldn't expect any type of financial aid from his or her school or the government.
Even if you think you won't qualify for assistance of any kind, it's still important to get your FAFSA submitted on time. First, it's a requirement at many schools, and it can leave a bad impression if you fail to submit this form. Second, and more importantly, you never know if you'll qualify for some type of financial aid. In this case, failing to file your FAFSA on time is the same thing as turning down free money.
Ready to get started with your FAFSA and find out how much financial aid you may qualify for? Read on to the next section to learn where to find this form and what you need to know as you complete it.
Completing the FAFSA
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the Web-based FAFSA is the preferred method of completing this form, and it's also the most popular with students. While hard copies of the application are available at most college financial aid offices, there are a number of reasons to choose the online FAFSA over a paper copy. First, you'll know immediately that your application has been received. There's no chance of it getting lost in the mail or misplaced on someone's desk, which could cause you to miss the deadline. Second, Web-based FAFSAs are often processed more quickly, with aid packages sent to students sooner than they are to those who filed by mail.
Before you begin filling out your FAFSA, complete the FAFSA Eligibility Worksheet, which can be found on the FAFSA Web site. This document will help you determine whether you can receive certain types of aid based on any criminal history you may have.
To make completing the FAFSA as quick and easy as possible, gather together all the necessary documents before you settle in to complete the form. You'll need your social security card and driver's license, as well as tax records, bank information and any investment documents in your name. If you're still dependent on your parents for support, you'll also need copies of all their financial records.
Once you have all the necessary paperwork, be sure to read the instructions for the FAFSA so you don't make a mistake. It's also helpful to understand how different terms are used so you can provide the correct information. For example, the FAFSA may qualify "total income" quite differently than other forms you've come across, so be sure to read all instructions and definitions to avoid confusion.
After you've finished the entire FAFSA, you must provide a signature. This can be done online using a personal identification number (PIN), or by mailing in a signature page. PINs must be requested on the FAFSA Web site, and it may take a few days before they're issued. You can also print out a signature page and mail it in after your form is submitted. If you're worried about your form getting lost in the mail or mislaid, stick with PIN-based signatures [source: US Department of Education].
Of course, all of this work will be for nothing if you don't adhere to the strict deadlines for this form. To learn more about FAFSA deadlines, and why you should apply well in advance of these dates, read on to the next section.
Now we come to the most important and perhaps the most confusing part of completing the FAFSA: the deadline. Even the most qualified or needy student will be out of luck if he or she submits the FAFSA too late.
The good news is that students have plenty of time to get the FAFSA submitted before the deadline. For those planning to attend college in the fall semester, the government begins accepting and processing FAFSAs on Jan. 1 of that year. The hard and fast deadline for FAFSA submission for federal aid is midnight, Central Daylight Time on June 30.
In order to receive state aid, however, your FAFSA deadlines can vary depending on where you live and what kind of aid you're hoping to receive. State FAFSA deadlines range from Feb. 15 in Connecticut to 30 days after the fall semester begins in Minnesota. To understand the FAFSA deadline for your state, refer to the FAFSA deadlines Web site or check with your school's financial aid office [source: US Department of Education].
It's important for students to understand the difference between state and federal deadlines. As long as your FAFSA is submitted by the federal deadline of June 30, you may be qualified to receive federal loans, grants and other financial aid. If you miss your state's deadline, you will still qualify for federal aid, but not for state-funded aid programs.
Many colleges also have their own deadlines in place, which affect how college aid funds are distributed. Some colleges require the FAFSA to be submitted by March 1, for example. In order to receive college funding, the FAFSA must be submitted to the federal government by that date.
When reviewing financial aid deadlines, it's critical that you pay close attention to the terms of the deadline, not just the date itself. There's a big difference between a FAFSA that's submitted and one that's processed or postmarked. Check to see how your school defines its FAFSA deadlines so you can be absolutely sure your forms are submitted on time [source: US Department of Education].
No matter what your state and college require in terms of deadline, it's almost always in your best interest to submit your FAFSA as early as possible. While the form is accepted starting on Jan. 1, many students find themselves waiting until the last minute, either because they are waiting for tax forms like 1099s or they just can't find the time. The Department of Education recommends using last year's tax information instead of waiting for your new 1099 forms to arrive. You can always file for a correction later if your financial information has changed drastically over the past year.
Why submit your FAFSA early? The best aid packages are generally awarded early on, leaving whatever funds are leftover to go to those who wait to apply. Many programs will even run out of funds well before the June 30 deadline, which means you reduce your chances for aid the longer you wait. By submitting as close to Jan. 1 as possible, you're also more likely to comply with any state or college deadlines, which may be much earlier than the federal deadlines.
Understanding Your Financial Aid Package
So, you've completed and submitted your FAFSA before the deadline. Now what? Instead of just waiting to hear what type of aid you'll be receiving, it's important to be vigilant and follow up to ensure your FAFSA is received.
The Department of Education recommends checking the status of your application about a week after it's been submitted. If you mailed a paper application or a signature page, you'll need to wait two to three weeks to follow up. If your FAFSA status is "accepted" or "processed," your job is done. If the form is shown as rejected, there will be additional information provided telling you why the form was not accepted. In this situation, you must immediately correct any problems and resubmit your form as soon as possible.
FAFSA processing can take a few weeks or a few months depending on how many forms have been submitted. While you're waiting, head to the FAFSA Web site and make sure you've listed all colleges you may want to attend. Once your FAFSA is processed, the Department of Education uses this list to determine where to send copies of your financial aid package. You can add or delete colleges from this list at any time by visiting the FAFSA Web site.
Once processing is complete, you'll receive a document in the mail known as a Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR will list all financial aid you have been awarded as well as a number representing your expected family contribution (EFC). You may receive a SAR from each school as well, which indicates a final aid package that includes aid from the college as well as state and federal government sources [source: US Department of Education].
While the EFC may seem intimidating, it's important to understand that this number is a rule of thumb. If you expect to have trouble paying this amount, contact your college, which can often make adjustments to your aid package [source: The College Board].
If you find a mistake in your SAR that needs correcting, visit your college's financial aid office. The office can provide you with the correct forms, which must be submitted to the Department of Education so your FAFSA can be reprocessed.
But what if you've received your aid package and you know it's not enough? Try filling the gaps by getting a part-time job or looking for work-study programs at your school. You can also seek out private loans from banks or student loan companies like Sallie Mae to help bridge the gap between cost and financial aid.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Anderson, Nick, and de Vise, Daniel. "College Costs Still Rising." The Washington Post. Oct. 21, 2009. (Jan. 15, 2010).http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/20/AR2009102001415.html
- Brown, Nathan, and Proper, Sheryle A. "The Everything Paying for College Book." Adams Media. Avon, MA. 2005.
- The College Board. "Why Your EFC Isn't Set in Stone." 2010. (Jan. 15, 2010).http://www.collegeboard.com/student/pay/scholarships-and-aid/410.html
- U.S. Department of Education. "FAFSA Application Deadlines." Jan. 1, 2010. (Jan. 15, 2010).http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/before003a.htm
- U.S. Department of Education. "FAFSA Follow-Up Overview." Jan. 1, 2010. (Jan. 15, 2010).http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/follow001.htm
- U.S. Department of Education. "Funding Your Education." Student Aid on the Web. Jan. 7, 2010. (Jan. 15, 2010).http://studentaid.ed.gov/PORTALSWebApp/students/english/funding.jsp