Marie Bigham is director of college counseling at the Greenhill School in Addison, Texas. She is a vice chair of the Association of College Counseling in Independent Schools (ACCIS).
Now that most college application deadlines have passed, applicants and their families should be sure to obtain and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. It is the go-to form to apply for federal and state student grants, as well as loans and work-study programs.
For non-federal financial aid, including from the colleges and universities themselves, families should also educate themselves about the CSS/Financial Aid Profile, a service of the College Board used by nearly 400 institutions and scholarship programs.
Here are some tips for students and their families to bear in mind as they embark on this complex, but often critical, aspect of the process of making college as affordable as possible:
Pay very careful attention to deadlines. You can hurt your chances of getting funding if you miss financial aid deadlines. Every college that receives federal funding, the vast majority of colleges in the US, requires the FAFSA. Some also require the CSS Profile or institutional-specific forms. Be sure to check each college’s website for their specific requirements and deadlines.
Do not wait until you’ve been admitted to a college to apply for aid. Often these are parallel processes that happen independent of each other.
Be sure to use the correct website for the FAFSA, as established by the United States Department of Education, and not some that look official but are not. The main FAFSA site is very helpful , most questions should be answered here. Also, avoid anyone or any website that asks you to pay to complete or submit the FAFSA. This is a free form and process.
As a credible, supplemental resource, we recommend the website Fastweb.com, which also has a straightforward video that walks you through the FAFSA as well. Another helpful video, from the University of California at Santa Barbara, is here.
Get a PIN for the FAFSA right now.If you do not already have one, click here to obtain one.
Have all your financial information and documents ready before you get started:
If you are challenged by completing the FAFSA because of unusual circumstances (for example: incarcerated parents, students in the foster system, parent location unknown), be sure to check out this guidance for navigating these and other circumstances. You can also reach out to your colleges’ financial aid offices for their advice as well.
For students with divorced parents, the parent with whom the student resides the majority of time should complete the FAFSA.
Assets like retirement funds and home equity are not taken into consideration with the FAFSA, but some colleges may ask for this information on supplemental forms.
When asked to list the colleges to which you are sending the FAFSA, be sure to do so in alphabetical order, not in order of preference.
Finally, remember that colleges see paying for college as the family’s responsibility primarily. They will work in partnership to help you pay, but families should not rely on colleges to provide enough money to cover for the estimated full cost of attendance, which may include room and board, meals, books and transportation to and from home.
Chances are good that applicants will be asked to take on some student and/or parent loans. While loans aren’t bad, necessarily, families should carefully consider how much loan debt will be accrued over a student’s college and graduate school educations – and the income (and amount of time) that will be required to meet those obligations following graduation.