You prepare a student aid application. Most aid starts with the
federal student aid application (FAFSA)
– a form that asks many household income, asset, and dependency questions. Your
parents will probably want to answer most of them. Tell your parents or guardians
that they don't have to file their income taxes before they complete your FAFSA.
It's okay if they estimate earnings based on their previous year's income just to
get your FAFSA into the system early. That way, your place in the student aid line
is secure. Later, when they file their federal income taxes, they can revise your
FAFSA with final numbers.
Each college determines your aid eligibility and award amount based on the information
you provide for your FAFSA. Competition for aid is fierce, and most of it is awarded
on a first-come, first-served basis. Submit your FAFSA as soon as possible after
January 1st so you don't miss out on any student aid! Many state and college programs
also require additional forms (e.g., CSS Profile).
The federal government calculates your EFC. The federal government
doesn't tell you how much aid you will receive – colleges do. The federal government
calculates what's called your
expected family contribution (EFC),
which is the amount it says your family is expected to pay toward your education
expenses. Your EFC and each college's published
cost of attendance (COA)
(also called the "sticker price") determine your financial need, eligibility, and
Remember, your EFC is not necessarily the amount of money you must come up with
immediately to pay for college. Funding sources such as
programs can offset your net ("out-of-pocket") cost. Of course, loans must be repaid
after you leave college.
Your need is determined. Some aid is based on merit (grades and
accomplishments), but most aid is based on "need," which means that you must demonstrate
financial need to be eligible. Your financial need is calculated based on your EFC
and the published cost of attendance for the colleges you apply to.
Colleges access your information. Once your student aid application
is processed, administrators at the colleges that have accepted you will access
the personal and financial data you provided on your FAFSA to determine your student
aid eligibility and award amounts.
Colleges determine your eligibility and award amounts. Colleges
decide aid awards based on your need and how much aid they have to offer. You will
receive a financial aid award letter from each college that accepts you (generally
in March or April for "traditional" students). Colleges are often open to reconsidering
your award if something about your financial status changes for the worse – e.g.,
if a parent's job is eliminated.
Apply early for student aid every year. Nearly everyone is eligible
for some type of aid. Millions of students apply for the billions of dollars available.
Don't get left out.
If you want to get the most aid possible,
you should apply as close to January 1st as you can. Most federal, state, and college
aid programs require that you reapply for aid each year. The aid "window" for each
academic year stays open 18 months, so if your family runs into a financial problem
during the first semester, there's still time to request more aid for the current
academic year. Aid may also pay some costs retroactively.