By Katie Wornek – StepUp Outreach Officer and Paying For College Expert – 10.3.17
October is here, and with it comes pumpkin carving, haunted houses, and FAFSA SEASON. The “Free Application for Federal Student Aid” (or FAFSA) is the form you must complete to be considered for all forms of financial aid aid from the federal government (grants, work-study, and loans) and most forms of student aid from your state or college. If the idea of completing the FAFSA fills you with dread, you’re not alone. The FAFSA can seem intimidating, but with the right information and a little help, you can overcome your FAFSA fears.
MYTH: “The FAFSA is too complicated”
There’s an old saying from Benjamin Franklin: “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.”
Between the parent and student sections, there are over 140 questions on the FAFSA, and many of them ask about your taxes. This fact alone is enough to spook anyone away from filing! But, bear in mind, each tax question on the FAFSA usually tells you which line to look at on your tax return, and the “Help and Hints” box on the right side of the screen will give you clear direction if you get stuck. The FAFSA also offers a tool that allows you to transfer your tax information directly from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). You can also get help with your FAFSA by attending a FAFSA Completion Open House at your school or in your community, or you can watch our helpful FAFSA Walk-Through Video.
URBAN FAFSA LEGEND: “I won’t qualify”
Many students don’t file their FAFSA because they think they won’t qualify for any forms of aid. Nearly everyone can qualify for some type of federal student aid, and you’ll never know unless you try.
COMMON FAFSA FEAR: “I have to take the aid I’m offered”
Remember that the FAFSA is an application, not a contract. In other words, completing the FAFSA lets you know the types and amount of federal student aid you can qualify for, but you don’t have to accept any of it. If you do choose to accept any federal student loans offered to you, remember to use them as a last resort and only borrow the amount you need to pay for school expenses.
COMMON FAFSA FEAR: “I don’t feel comfortable sharing my personal information”
The FAFSA will ask you for demographic information (such as your Social Security Number and address) and financial information (such as income and assets) to calculate how much assistance you might need to pay for school. If you’re nervous about providing that information, rest assured that the Department of Education works hard to ensure your application is secure and that your private information is protected. Additionally, some state or federal government agency already knows the information you are providing. For example, your state gave you your driver’s license number, the Social Security Administration assigned you your Social Security Number, and the IRS processed your tax return.
A COMMON AND INCORRECT ASSUMPTION: “If my parents don’t claim me on their taxes, I’m independent”
The FAFSA will ask you a series of questions to determine if you are a dependent student (meaning you need to provide parental financial information) or an independent student (meaning you only have to provide your own financial information). None of those questions asks if your parents claimed you on your taxes, so it’s important to remember that the definition of the word “dependent” on the FAFSA is completely different than its definition on tax returns. If you have questions about your dependency status, this handy chart can help:
“I’m confused about which parent(s) to list on my FAFSA” (This one is tough. Let us help!)
If your parents are unmarried, separated, divorced, or remarried, or if you don’t live with your parents, it can be difficult to know whose information to provide on the FAFSA. This chart from the Department of Education will help you answer this question:
“I filed the FAFSA last year, so I don’t need to this year” (You file your FAFSA each and every year you’re in college!)
If you’re a college student right now and you already filed the FAFSA last year, great work! However, federal student aid is awarded year-by-year, so you need to file the FAFSA every year you plan to attend college.
To recap, the FAFSA is not as spooky as it sounds. With the StepUp team here to support you, completing the FAFSA can be a treat instead of a trick.