There are three major sources of financial aid for college: the federal government; the colleges themselves; and independent scholarships (generally much less significant than the prior two).
In order to file for financial aid at any college, domestic students and families must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance (FAFSA), which is your application for money from the government, and the initial step to applying for aid from the colleges as well. Final award determinations will be based on your Federal Tax Forms, and federal and institutional deadlines may appear very generous.
You should complete the FAFSA as early as possible in January, and submit it not long after your applications. The earlier these forms are in to the Financial Aid offices of your schools, the more money there will be available to you while your candidacy is considered. Also, many individual colleges have earlier deadlines than the government for FAFSA submission. We can’t emphasize enough that it’s critical to file the FAFSA in early January.
When completing the FAFSA, the order goes like this:
1. Both student and parents get PIN’s from the government to enter their information. (www.pin.ed.gov)
2. Complete the FAFSA at the website listed above, and select up to 10 schools to send the form to. Any special circumstances you wish to explain to colleges regarding your finances should be communicated individually to the financial aid office at each college.
3. STUDENT will receive a Student Aid Report confirming the FAFSA has been sent, via email. This can take up to 7-10 days.
4. Corrections or sending FAFSA to additional schools, can be completed only once SAR has been received. Copies of all SAR’s should be kept--THIS IS AN IMPORTANT RECORD OF ALL YOUR ACTIVITY REGARDING THE FAFSA.
5. Students will be responsible for receiving and handling all communication between themselves, their families, and their college’s financial aid office beginning this year. Look for those emails and communicate with each other.
While many colleges require only the FAFSA to file for aid, many private colleges also use an institutional financial aid application called the CSS Profile (available at collegeboard.com), or have their own forms for institutional financial aid. You can complete the Profile when your list is finalized, if you are applying to colleges that accept it.
Many colleges have their own financial aid forms they require you to fill out, particularly those which do not use the Profile. These forms will be listed with admission requirements — be on the lookout for these required forms, as not completing them can slow or even reduce your aid awards.
A few closing thoughts ...
1. Please don't hesitate to be in touch with questions, with us, OR with the college financial aid offices themselves. They are great resources, and do this work to help families and students get access to a great education. They are allies, not gatekeepers.
2. Be careful looking online for FAFSA resources. There are many sites which offer to do your FAFSA for you, or to file for aid for you, at a COST. These sites are scams, and are a waste of your money.
3. Did we mention that you should act on this now?
4. As for outside scholarships, give a try to fastweb, or to the Naviance scholarship finding engines. Most importantly, though, apply for scholarships AT YOUR COLLEGES THEMSELVES. Many have money available to applicants, either based on merit or particular aspects of your background or interests. Now that your list is complete, dig in and see what you can find in terms of special school scholarships available. This is an area where we welcome parents to jump in and do some of this work for students. Since outside scholarships generally account for relatively small awards, we recommend caution against spending too much time on this part of the process. As always, be in touch with questions.
- finaid.org (great all-around site to help with the process)
- FAFSA4caster.ed.gov (to see what your family's Estimated Financial Contribution will be, to help determine your eligibility for need-based aid)
- fastweb.org (independent scholarships; Naviance's scholarship-finding engine on your own Naviance page)
- Federal Student Aid
- CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE: To see if your schools use the profile, click here.
- Institutional Aid (See Colleges’ Websites)