Hello Seniors (and Parents who love them),
Happy October! Not only does October mean stressing about getting in early admissions applications, midterms, and Halloween, but it’s also the beginning of Financial Aid Season.
In order to receive need-based aid from colleges (and merit-based depending on the college), you will need to fill out the FAFSA. At some schools, you may also be required to fill out the CSS Profile. Even if you don’t think you’ll get any aid, you should still fill these out. In this post, I’ll be going over the basics of the FAFSA and CSS Profile.
No doubt you will still have lots of questions after reading this post. Be sure you keep u/BrawnyAcolyte‘s comment from my post last October in mind: “Almost any question you have about filling out the FAFSA is answered somewhere on https://studentaid.gov .” Also, if you find that the resources offered here don’t help or you’re overwhelmed and confused, reach out to the university’s financial aid offices. They are often the best source of information for you – especially if you have a unique or difficult situation. They can tell you how best to address FAFSA info for your best outcome.
Let’s start with some College-Admission-Financial-Aid Alphabet Soup
FAFSA: Free Application for Federal Student Aid
FSA ID: Federal Student Aid ID
CSS Profile: College Scholarship Service
TASFA: Texas Application for State Financial Aid (for non-US citizens)
SAR: Student Aid Report
NPC: Net Price Calculator (use the college-specific net price calculators on their websites to determine your predicted cost)
IDOC: Institutional Documentation Service (For CSS profile)
EFC: Expected Financial Contribution
COA: Cost of Attendance
Need-Based Aid: aid awarded after filing FAFSA and CSS Profile (if required)
Merit Aid: awarded based on merit, not financial need
Loans: Money that will need to be paid back in the form of a subsidized or private loan
Grants: also called Gift Aid (no need to pay back as a loan)
What do I need to fill out the FAFSA?
In order to fill out the FAFSA, you’re going to need some documents. Make sure to gather the following before filling out the FAFSA:
- Social security numbers of both yourself and your parents (or alien registration number if you’re not a U.S. citizen)
- Driver’s license number (if you have one)
- Federal tax information or tax returns for you and for your parents if you are a dependent student
- Foreign tax returns (if applicable)
- Records of assets, Bank statements, and records of investments (if applicable)
- Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
- An FSA ID to sign electronically. — Do NOT create an FSA account on behalf of someone else. That means parents should not create FSA accounts for their children and vice versa. Doing so may result in issues signing and submitting the FAFSA form and could lead to financial aid delays. (Also, it’s against the rules to create an FSA account for someone else.)
- List of colleges you’re considering. You can list up to 10 when you first fill out the FAFSA. Once a school has listed that they’ve received your FAFSA, you may remove them from your list and replace them with a new school.
Who completes the FAFSA and/or CSS?
FAFSA: If you are a dependent student and a U.S. citizen, you will need to give some information about your parents along with your own on the FAFSA. If your parents are married or live together, answer the questions about both of them. If your parents are divorced or separated and don’t live together, answer using the parent you lived with more during the past 12 months. If you lived the same amount of time with both parents, give answers about the parent who provided more financial support during the past 12 months or during the most recent 12 months, you received support from a parent.
If you’re an independent student and a U.S. citizen, you only need to report your own information and your spouse’s (if you’re married). For more information on what type of student you qualify as, check out this link for the FAFSA.
CSS Profile: Dependent students, regardless of if they’re U.S. citizens, must complete the CSS Profile if their school requires it. If your parents are married—or live together even if they’re not married—answer the questions about both of them, whether they’re the same or opposite sex. If your parents are divorced or separated and don’t live together, some colleges will require that both the custodial and non-custodial parent fill out the profile. Independent students must also fill out the CSS Profile.
What types of aid can I receive?
After filling out the FAFSA or CSS, you may be eligible for the following types of aid:
- Grants: Grants can be based on financial need (need-based) or academic merit (merit-based) and can come from the federal government, the state government, or from the college/university. Unlike loans, grants generally do not need to be paid back.
- Loans: Federal Loans offer the lowest interest rates and are both subsidized (interest covered by the government while in college) and unsubsidized (interest builds). Private Loans depend on credit history. Parents can also take out Parent-Plus Loans. Private loans tend to have higher interest rates compared to federal loans, so try to use your federal loans before resorting to private loans.
- Work-Study: Work-study can be done on campus or off. Students must indicate their interest on the FAFSA. Just because you’re awarded federal work-study doesn’t mean you’ll get a job, so make sure to be diligent so you can secure one!
You will also receive your expected family contribution (EFC). EFC is a six-digit number that represents how much money your family is expected to contribute to the cost of your college education. Schools will consider your EFC when calculating your financial aid package. Your EFC may differ between the FAFSA and the CSS Profile.
What about other types of aid?
- Merit Aid and Scholarships: Students and families should not pay for scholarship services, but they should look into local scholarships. Outside scholarships can add up, but they can be a lot of work. Similar to grants, scholarships don’t need to be paid back. But also, be aware that some colleges will reduce your financial aid if you bring in outside scholarships. So before you spend a lot of time looking for scholarships, make sure your colleges don’t do that.
- In my college counseling groups, I’ve heard people mention the following websites for Scholarship searches, but I’ve never explored or used any of them: RaiseMe, Unigo, Cappex, Merit More, Tuition Fit, Going Merry, College Express, www.CollegeScholarships.com, Fast Web, College Raptor.
- Beyond that, I’ve heard Tiktok and Instagram can be a great resource, with parents and teens doing a lot of research and gramming and posting — who knew? Search “college scholarships 2023” or “college scholarships.” Apparently, there’s a lot of people doing a lot of sorting there.
- Here a few people I follow on Instagram who are constantly posting about scholarships: @ScholarshipSearchStrategist, @Ms.FreeDegree, @CollegeForAllProgram, @MsSuzyRuiz, @CollegeGreenlight
- Also, be aware that some colleges will reduce your financial aid if you bring in outside scholarships. So before you spend a lot of time looking for scholarships, make sure your colleges don’t do that. Be sure to read this website to learn more about scholarship displacement: https://www.disscholared.org/
How do I create an FSA ID to make my FAFSA account?
- Visit https://studentaid.gov/fsa-id/create-account.
- You’ll need a Social Security number, full name, and date of birth.
- You’ll also need to create a memorable username and password
- You’ll be required to provide either your email address or your mobile phone number when you make your FSA ID.
Important: A Social Security number, email address, and mobile phone number can only be associated with one FSA ID. If you share an email address with someone else, then only one of you will be able to use that email address to create an FSA ID. Go to https://studentaid.gov/sites/default/files/creating-using-fsaid.pdf to find more info.
How do I create a CSS Profile Account?
To create an account: Use your College Board username and password if you have one or sign up for a new account. If you created an account for the SAT or to view your PSAT or AP scores, you should use the same username and password for your CSS Profile application. https://cssprofile.collegeboard.org/pdf/css-profile-student-guide.pdf
Your first CSS application costs $25, with additional applications priced at $16. However, if your family income is under $100,000 or you’ve qualified for an SAT fee waiver, then the CSS Profile is free.
What do I need to fill out the CSS Profile?
To fill out the CSS Profile, you’ll need the following documents:
- Last year’s tax returns
- W-2s and income records from both this year and last year
- Records of untaxed income for this year and last year
- Bank statements
- Mortgage info
- Records of savings, stocks, bonds, and trusts
- Info on small businesses and other assets
What’s the difference between the FAFSA and the CSS Profile?
While the federal government’s FAFSA program is universal for schools in the U.S., College Board’s CSS Profile isn’t required by all schools (although hundreds use it). Schools are able to customize the CSS Profile, allowing them to gain a different understanding of your financial situation. The CSS Profile also costs money while the FAFSA is free.
What does Verification mean?
If you’re flagged for verification, then you need to supply the requested documents. Many schools verify everyone and some do it at random. There are some red flags like incomplete or contradictory data and inconsistent taxes and exemptions. Go to How to Review and Correct Your FAFSA® Application for more info. Be sure to stay in contact with the financial aid offices and respond quickly. Ask for help if you need it — you don’t want to miss out on valuable aid.
Documents you might need to provide for FAFSA or IDOC verification: income tax forms, W-2 statements, and 1099 forms, IRA deductions, untaxed IRA distributions and pensions, food stamps, number in household.
What’s the difference between need-blind and need-aware schools?
Need-blind schools will not consider your finances when choosing whether or not they’d like to admit you to their school. Need-aware schools will consider your finances. For international students, only a handful of =schools are both need-blind and meet full-need for international students. However, don’t limit yourself to these need-blind schools if you’re looking for aid. Definitely apply to a wide range of colleges because many will offer substantial merit aid.
How do I compare financial aid award letters?
- Here’s a SAMPLE College Aid Comparison
- Find the cost of attendance. If it doesn’t say on the offer from the college, contact the financial aid office. Make sure it includes both direct costs (tuition and fees) and indirect costs (living expenses, books, supplies, transportation).
- Subtract the grant and scholarship amounts from the cost of attendance.
- The remainder is your net cost or what you’ll have to pay (either out of pocket or through loans).
- Compare the net costs for each school.
Go to https://studentaid.gov/complete-aid-process/comparing-aid-offers) to get more info and details.
How do I do a Financial Aid Appeal?
If your financial award doesn’t fit what you need to be able to attend a college, don’t give up if it’s a college you’d really like to attend. It’s always ok to appeal and see if it can work out for you. The worst thing that can happen is you won’t get more aid and you’re exactly where you are after the initial financial aid letter. But, I’ve shared the following resources and heard back with many students over the years who’ve successfully appealed their financial aid awards, so I definitely think it’s worth the effort for colleges you’d truly love to attend. Just, as always in college admissions, hope for the best, but expect the worst.
FormSwift, Merit More, New York Times article from April 2021
Comment on r/A2C from u/a12435 about financial aid appeals
Also, College Essay Guy has a great resource about how to write the financial aid appeal letter
Whew! That’s a lot of information. Look, I’m not even close to a specialist in financial aid, so I hope that some of our many financial aid wizards will correct me or add on where I’ve missed. I just like to collect resources and share them!
College Money Methods 2023-2024 FAFSA Walk-through and Tutorial for High School Seniors
Education Quest FAFSA Tutorial
8 Steps to Completing the FAFSA Form
Where do I find more resources and information?
Filling out the FAFSA from studentaid.gov
Wall Street Journal Guide to Student Loans
Here’s a great podcast with a conversation between College Essay Guy’s Team and my favorite financial aid resource, Jeff Levy
Financial Aid Resources Presentation/AdmissionsMom’s Advice
About Financial Aid Presentation/AdmissionsMom’s Advice
Merit Scholarship/Financial Aid Folder of College Lists and Spreadsheets
What’s the tl;dr?
- Financial Aid season is upon us, so it’s time to get moving on your FAFSA and CSS profiles (where appropriate for you)
- There are tons of resources available to you, so be sure to do your research.
- Get your parents involved.
- Act early, because sometimes for some rolling admissions schools the earlier you act, the more aid you’re likely to receive
- Don’t hesitate to appeal if the aid doesn’t work for you and it’s a school you want to attend but there’s no way you can at the amount you’ve been awarded.
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