Financing an education can be a daunting task for students and parents alike. Many students need financial aid to pay for their expenses, and that means filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. The FAFSA is used to determine eligibility for federal aid, such as Pell grants, as well as for aid awarded by individual colleges and universities.
But blindly sitting down to fill out FAFSA documents isn’t the best idea. The more you know in advance, the better prepared you will be when applying — and the better chance you will have to get more financial aid.
How to Get More Financial Aid From FAFSA
When colleges award financial aid, various factors are considered — and many of these factors are ones that you can control. Find out what they are so you can get the award you need to attend the college of your choice. Here are seven things you can do to get more money for college:
1. Understand the Process
The FAFSA does not calculate the amount of student financial aid you will receive. Rather, when you file your FAFSA, the data you provide will be used to calculate your estimated family contribution or EFC. The EFC is the amount that the U.S. Department of Education determines your family will be able to contribute toward the student’s education.
By taking the cost of attendance — which differs for each college — and subtracting the EFC, you will get the amount that must be covered by financial aid, scholarships or other means, which is referred to as “demonstrated need.” Some schools will meet 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated need; others will meet less. Consider private loans, scholarships or other options to bridge the gap if the school you want to attend will not meet 100 percent of your demonstrated need.
When you complete the FAFSA, you have to declare your assets and those of your parents. The ownership of the asset can make a big difference in how much of it is expected to be used for college.
For example, if a student has a savings account, the FAFSA will assume that 20 percent of the account’s balance will be used to pay for college each year. Whereas, for savings accounts belonging to parents, only about 5 percent of the funds will be assumed to be available for college expenses.
3. Pay Attention to Your Income
The amount of income you make has a big impact on the amount of your EFC, and both students and parents will need to provide their federal income tax returns that were filed the previous year if applicable. For students with a college start-date in September 2018, for example, you’ll provide your 2016 income tax return as documentation, which you filed in April 2017.
Capital gains on your investments are also treated as income; if possible, avoid selling any investments that will generate capital gains after the student’s sophomore year of high school. Once the FAFSA has been filed for the student’s senior year, you can take gains again.
4. Complete the FAFSA and File Your Applications as Soon as Possible
Getting your application in early might help you get more aid. Colleges only have a certain amount of aid to award, and if you miss the deadline, you might miss out. Some institutions use a first-come, first-served model for providing aid, so filling out your application early can only help.
The federal filing deadline is June 30, but some states might have a different deadline. Colleges might even require the forms earlier, so make sure you adhere to all deadlines that apply to you.
5. Fill Out the FAFSA Correctly
Just as not filing early enough can move you to back of the line at award time, so can making errors on the form or omitting information. The online version of the form should prompt you in the case of blank fields, but if you fill out a paper application, make sure you check and double-check your information.
6. Appeal the Award
Financial award packages can be reconsidered by colleges under certain circumstances. Explain your situation, and ask the financial aid office if it can increase the amount of aid. You have nothing to lose, and some schools might adjust the award, particularly if there are circumstances they were not made aware of on the FAFSA application, such as extraordinary expenses.
Beware of asking a college to match another college’s financial aid offer in an attempt to get into your preferred school. Some colleges refuse to do this, considering it a form of negotiation, which they reject. Instead, reiterate the student’s interest in the school and clarify any circumstances that might impact the decision.
7. Inform the College if Your Circumstances Change
Sometimes unexpected life changes happen. For example, if you or your parent loses a job or needs to take a pay cut, inform the college. They might adjust the award, even in subsequent years. The worst thing that can happen is denial, and if you don’t attempt to ask, you can be sure you won’t get a better award.
Up Next: How to Check Your FAFSA Status
Higher education can seem prohibitively expensive, but it’s a worthwhile investment. With some careful planning and the use of these FAFSA strategies, you can increase your chances of getting money for college that you need to satisfy your expenses.