Although a student’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is the student’s responsibility, parents take a large role in the process when a student is determined to be dependent. If you’re getting ready to help your child apply for federal student aid on the 2016–17 FAFSA, here’s what you should be doing over the next few months:
Before the FAFSA
- Learn the basics of the federal student aid programs (grants, work-study, and loans) at StudentAid.gov/types. Federal aid is intended to help cover the student’s cost of attendance (tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and other education expenses.)
- To familiarize yourself further with your child’s federal student aid options, read Do You Need Money for College? at StudentAid.gov/needmoney.
- Encourage your child to maximize any available free money to help pay for college. There’s information and a free scholarship search at StudentAid.gov/scholarships.
- Understand whether your child needs to provide parent information on the FAFSA. StudentAid.gov/dependency will help you determine if your child is dependent or independent.
- Understand who counts as a parent for purposes of filling out the FAFSA. StudentAid.gov/fafsa-parent shares the definition of “legal parent” and discusses which parent’s information should be reported on the FAFSA when the legal parents are divorced or separated and not living together.
- You and your child should get FSA IDs. An FSA ID is a username and password that you’ll be using to sign the FAFSA. You and your child each need your own FSA ID—and you each need to create your own for privacy purposes and because the information is easier to remember if you create your own. (Note: Only one of a student’s parents needs to sign the student’s FAFSA, so only one parent needs an FSA ID.)
- You and your child will each need to gather these documents in preparation for the FAFSA:
- Your Social Security number
- Your Alien Registration number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)
- Your 2015 federal income tax returns, W-2s, and/or other records of money earned*
- Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
- Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
- An FSA ID to sign electronically
*Note: You may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) once your tax form has been processed.
Filling Out the FAFSA
- Completing the FAFSA is a question-by-question guide to the FAFSA. It offers help, hints, and definitions in case you get stuck on any of the questions.
- Encourage your child to fill out the FAFSA before state and school deadlines, which may fall as early as February 2016. Students will be able to file a 2016–17 FAFSA beginning on Jan. 1, 2016.
- Make sure your child goes to fafsa.gov to fill out the application.
- The FAFSA is your child’s application, so keep in mind when it says “you,” it means “you, the student.”
- If you haven’t done your 2015 taxes before your child fills out the FAFSA, don’t worry. You can estimate the amounts, perhaps using your 2014 taxes to guide you.
- If you’ve already done your taxes before your child fills out the FAFSA, use the IRS DRT to automatically insert tax information into the FAFSA.
- If your family’s income has had a sudden drop (for instance, if a parent lost a job) that isn’t reflected in your 2015 tax information, gather documentation so that your child can present the situation to the financial aid administrator at the school.
- If you want to understand where your Expected Family Contribution comes from, take a look at the EFC Formula workbook at StudentAid.gov/resources#efc.
- At the beginning of the application, your child will be asked to create a Save Key, which is a temporary password that lets you return to a partially completed FAFSA. If you and your child are accessing his or her FAFSA from different locations, your child should do his or her part and then share the Save Key with you. You’ll need to enter it to get access to your child’s FAFSA.
- Be sure you or your child sees the confirmation page pop up on the screen so you’ll know the FAFSA has been submitted.
- Read the FAFSA confirmation page carefully. There are a few differences between the e-mailed confirmation (which arrives later) and the one you see at the end of the application, so consider printing or saving the confirmation page before you exit.
- Depending on your state, you may see a link on the FAFSA confirmation page to your state’s financial aid application. This will allow your child to transfer his or her information directly into the state aid application.
- If you have more than one child attending college, select the option on the confirmation page to transfer your parent information into the other child’s FAFSA.
- If you need help filling out the FAFSA, read the “Help and Hints” located on the right side of any page within the fafsa.gov application; click “Need Help?” at the bottom of any page; or chat (in English or Spanish) with live technical support staff by clicking the “Help” icon at the top of any page, then selecting “Contact Us,” “Federal Student Aid Information Center,” and then “Chat with Us.”
After the FAFSA
- Both you and your child will receive e-mails letting you know the FAFSA has been processed, assuming you both provided e-mail addresses on the FAFSA. It takes about three days for the FAFSA to be processed and sent to the school.
- Double-check the information you reported on the FAFSA. You can make corrections if necessary.
- During the winter or spring, your child will receive aid offers from schools. You can visit StudentAid.gov/fafsa/next-steps/accept-aid for more information on how to help your child understand and compare the types of aid as he or she decides what aid to accept and what to turn down.
- Encourage your child to read all communications from the school carefully and to supply any additional information, forms, or signatures needed by the deadlines the school sets.
Courtney Gallagher is a junior studying English at Westminster College in Missouri. She is an intern for the Content Development team in the office of Federal Student Aid at the U.S. Department of Education.
Photo by Getty Images.