5 Financial Aid Tips for Parents (from a Parent)

Financial Aid Tips for Parents

Happy New (School) Year! The beginning of the school year is always an exciting time in our home. For my kids, it’s the anticipation of going back to school, making new friends, and the start of soccer! For my husband and me, it’s the joy of getting back to a routine.

This year is slightly different.  Our daughter, Sahana, started her senior year in high school.  Over the summer, we had fun visiting schools.  During school presentations, we learned about academics, clubs, and traditions.  The one thing we did not hear a lot about was the cost of each college and the financial aid options available.  Yes, they usually did say to fill out the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), but no one explained why we should fill out the FAFSA or the steps needed to secure financial aid.

As Sahana embarks on her journey to college this fall, we will also be focusing on how to pay for college.

As an employee at Federal Student Aid (FSA), I feel like I know a bit more about the federal financial aid process than the average parent does.  Nevertheless, even after working at FSA for five years, it is such a different experience when you’re the one going through the FAFSA process for the first time.  As I was creating a checklist for us, I thought it would be helpful to share it with other parents going through the same journey. 

First let me explain what the FAFSA is and why it is important for you and your child to fill it out.  The FAFSA is the form that most colleges and states require in order for your child to be considered for financial aid.  Based on the information you and your child provide on the FAFSA, a college will determine your child’s financial aid package, which could include college, state, and federal aid in the form of grants, loans, work-study funds, and school scholarships.   Also, many private scholarship organizations require a copy of your FAFSA.

Here it goes!  Just a few simple steps to start the financial aid piece of the college application process!

Step 1: Research and Compare College Costs

What goes into determining the actual cost of college can be confusing and overwhelming.  Any college that participates in the federal student aid program is required to provide information on its cost of attendance and to offer a net price calculator on its website. This calculator will give you an idea of how much a program may cost after subtracting any financial aid. The average net price to attend the college is determined by subtracting the average amount of federal, state/local government, or institutional grant or scholarship aid from the total cost of attending the college’s largest program.

You can look up the cost and assess the value of colleges using the College Scorecard.

If you’re not ready to apply for federal student aid, but you’d like to estimate your aid, try  FAFSA4caster,  a free financial aid calculator that gives you an early estimate of your eligibility for federal student aid. This information helps families plan ahead for college.

Step 2:  Get Your FSA ID

An FSA ID is a username and password you need to log in to and sign the FAFSA online. You AND your child will each need your own FSA ID.  If you don’t have an FSA ID, get one here ASAP. It takes about 10 minutes to create an FSA ID (I timed it when we did ours!). Getting it early it will save you time when you fill out the FAFSA.

If you are creating an FSA ID for the first time, you’ll be able to use your FSA ID right away to sign and submit your FAFSA online. If this is not your first time filling out the FAFSA, you’ll need to wait 1–3 days before you can use your new FSA ID (there’s an account verification process).

Step 3: Fill Out the FAFSA  

After you get your FSA ID, go to fafsa.gov to fill out the FAFSA.  For step-by-step directions, read 8 Steps to Filing Out the FAFSA.  Here are a couple of tips for you, the parent:

  • The FAFSA is much easier to fill out if you let your child start the FAFSA by logging in with his/her FSA ID. That way, a lot of his/her info will be populated for you.
  • Remember the FAFSA is your child’s application, so when it says “you” or “your”, it’s referring to the student.  When the FAFSA needs your (the parent’s) information, it will specifically say parent.
  • The FAFSA asks for your child to list all the schools he/she is applying to.  Make sure to list all the schools your child is considering, even the ones that are on the maybe list.  This will ensure all the schools receive the completed FAFSA and hold your child’s place in line for aid should he/she apply and get accepted.
  • Many schools and states have limited financial aid; you and your child should fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible.  It’s available now and can be submitted before you child has completed his/her admissions application to the school.

Step 4: Review Your Child’s SAR (Student Aid Report)

Within three days after you and your child submit the FAFSA online, your child will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) via email. This document is a summary of your child’s FAFSA. You should review the SAR to ensure all the information is accurate. The SAR will also include an Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is a number used to calculate how much financial aid your child is eligible to receive based on the information provided on the FAFSA.

If you believe the information you provided on the FAFSA may not reflect your current family and financial situation, contact the college’s financial aid office to ask them for help. The college’s financial aid office may be able to take the additional information into account when determining your child’s financial aid award. (You will need to contact the financial aid office at each school to which your child is applying for admission.)

Step 5: Research Scholarships

Take some time to help your child find scholarship opportunities. You can also use the U.S. Department of Labor’s FREE scholarship search tool. Remember, some scholarship programs may have  deadlines that are earlier than the state or college deadline, so submit your FAFSA as soon as possible.

Good luck with the college application and financial aid process!

Photo by Getty Images

Vandna Wendy Bhagat is the Director of Awareness and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid. She is also the mom of a high school senior and freshman. Wendy is just starting to navigate the college process with her daughter.


  1. I think In the US, you are screwed. Your family will have an expected family contribution (EFC). Even if they refuse to pay it, it is used as part of financial aid. I was disabled….my ex refused to pay anything for my sons. I paid everything (excluding Stafford loans) for them to go to MIT.its true
    need more information

  2. My first daughter started college in fall 2016. My second begins next fall. We did separate fafsa for each? Last year, a school FA person told me that I had to include their dads financial info even though we are legally separated. I file as head of household.
    This year I was told the opposite from another counselor? Which is true? I need to know fairly quickly! Can’t get answers through FACS and can’t get human on phone ?

  3. I am working with a youth living with her guardian aunt. She was never a court dependent. Her guardianship is from probate court. She has contact with both of her birth parents who are now divorced. Will this youth qualify as independent on her FAFSA? If not, does she have to report both parents incomes? She has not received any support from either for a long time. She has received much support from her guardian aunt and the aunt’s husband.

    • This is what the FAFSA will say. If this applies to your student, they will be considered independent.

      Has it been determined by a court in your state of legal residence that you are an emancipated minor or that someone other than your parent or stepparent has legal guardianship* of you? (You also should answer “Yes” if you are now an adult but were in legal guardianship or were an emancipated minor immediately before you reached the age of being an adult in your state. Answer “No” if the court papers say “custody” rather than “guardianship.”)

      *Legal Guardianship
      A relationship created by court order, through which the court appoints an individual other than a minor’s parent to take care of the minor. A legal guardian is not considered a parent on the student’s FAFSA. In fact, a student in legal guardianship does not need to report parent information on the FAFSA because he or she is considered an independent student.

  4. Does it make any difference if my son files his own income tax or if we include his income on our (parents) tax form?

    • Do you mean claiming your son on taxes? That does not make a difference. Dependency on the FAFSA uses different guidelines than what the IRS uses: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out/dependency

      Also, the FAFSA wants to know the income of the student going to college (your son) and the parents separately. You will report income and assets as separate people, not a combined family.

  5. If the college student recieved an inhertiance from a death of a grandparent does that money have to be claimed as an asset on the fafsa?

  6. Great tips! But don’t forget to apply for state grant aid as well if your state has a separate application!

  7. If my child is from a divorced home do both set of parents fill out this information. She is with both 50/50.
    Thank you.

  8. Thank you for sharing the scholarship search tool. I am experiencing the same matter with my son right now and it has been quite a challenge choosing university and then the stress whether he is accepted or not … It has been a rough time and your post really brought some light on many of the issues I had no idea how to deal with. Once again thanks for help and best of luck to you and your lovely daughter!

  9. This needs much broader outreach to all schools and counselors — should be part of a brochure for every junior and senior.

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