BY DREW HENDRICKS
Finding and filling out financial aid documents is a confusing and time-consuming process, whether you’re just finishing high school or an adult ready to return to higher ed. The best way to simplify this procedure is to prepare everything you need in advance. Take a look at this comprehensive guide to filing your federal and state student aid in 2019 before you submit your FAFSA, and make sure it’s done correctly.
Federal financial aid opens up to applicants every October 1st, with the deadline usually looming at the end of June the following year. It’s vital to fill out these forms as soon as possible to secure a grant in time for the Fall 2019 semester. Once you’re officially accepted to a school of your choice, you can start figuring out how you can secure your funding.
How Financial Aid Works
If it’s your first time attending a post-secondary program, you’ll likely have a lot of financial information, loan offers, and scholarship applications to figure out. Before you make any commitments to Sallie Mae, consider the benefits of federal financial aid.
The United States Federal Government offers financial aid for qualifying students. A certain amount of the country’s federal tax income goes towards offsetting tuition costs for students that need the resources. Once your application is processed, the funding goes directly to the university you’re attending, and any leftover grant money is sent to you for books and materials.
The amount of the grant varies depending on each student’s financial standing. Those under 24 years of age are assessed according to their parent’s tax returns, while students over 24 are eligible on their own merits. This aid is available to anyone currently accepted to a college, university, and specific vocational programs. It’s worth filing for, even if your grant is a few hundred dollars. Any money towards your education will help in the long run.
Financial aid is free, meaning you will not have to pay it back. This money is allocated explicitly by the government to level the higher education playing field. Scholarships are another way to get money to go to a school that won’t put you into debt. Otherwise, the next step is to turn to federal and bank loans.
State Financial Aid and Pell Grants
Another option is to file state student aid. Every state has programs, which is where you’ll have to go digging to figure out exactly what your area can offer you. These awards come in the form of grants. For example, New York currently provides free public colleges for residents, while California’s Cal Grant depends on high school GPAs. Federal aid is available to a broader range of students, but it’s recommended to fill out both to take full advantage of the awards.
The Pell Grant is another favorite way of funding higher education. Designed explicitly for lower-income students, the Pell Grant is the “single largest source of grants for postsecondary education” in the last 40 years. According to the Department of Education, Pell distributed around $28.8 billion in aid to students across America. After submitted your FAFSA form, you’re automatically considered for a Pell Grant. You do not have to apply separately for this program.
The average Pell Grant is a little below $6,000, and even if you don’t get the full amount, you will likely at least get enough to cover the cost of textbooks. Pell only covers undergraduate students, or those pursuing a post-baccalaureate teaching certificate. Additionally, there is a 12-semester lifetime limit on Pell Grants, so the funding does run out if you take more than four years to complete your degree.
How to Start the Financial Aid Process
As soon as you know you’re accepted to your school of choice, it’s time to gather your documents and sit down to file your FAFSA. The best thing to do is to get it out of the way, read through the entire application, and double check it to make sure it’s filled out correctly. Opening the FAFSA link for the first time is a little overwhelming, but the process is not incredibly complicated. You can save each section and come back to it so that you can take your time.
Firstly, you’ll have to create an FSA ID, which you can do here. The process takes about ten minutes and requires you to create a PIN password. Parents will have to fill this part out with their children, as they might have to sign some of the forms. Once you have your login, you can keep it forever. Even if you’re done with school, you can access your financial aid records through the FAFSA website with your ID.
The only correct form of federal financial aid will come from a .gov address. You can apply for FAFSA here, or print out a PDF from the website and mail it in.
Your form will have a few key steps you should pay attention to:
- Choosing the right form – The 2019-20 FAFSA form is for students planning to attend college between July 2019 and June 30, 2020. You’ll likely have a variety of dates to choose from, but this is the correct option if you’re starting with the next fall semester.
- Filing out the demographics section – This is for each student’s personal information. It’s important to copy your info exactly from your social security and other documents. This is not a place to put nicknames or change your name. It’s also illegal to lie about your ethnicity to secure a more substantial grant. Any inaccuracies might lead to your case being denied.
- List your schools – This space is for programs you have either officially applied or been accepted to. If you don’t get into some of the schools you referred to; the FAFSA form will disregard them and grant the funding to the institution you will register with. None of the schools can see this information, so don’t worry about including them on your application.
- Dependency status – This is likely the most complicated part of the form. They’ll require exact financial information. Unfortunately, if you’re under the age of 24, even if you live alone and make your income, your FAFSA will only take your parent’s income records. For this section, have your previous tax documents ready. For parents that rely on social security or disability, have your statement letters ready, as FAFSA takes that into serious consideration. The information in this section decides your grant amount.
- Parent demographics – If you’re over-age, this section may not even come up. Otherwise, you’ll have to answer necessary information regarding your family, including your parent’s social security numbers, incomes, jobs, and education levels.
- Supplying financial information – This is where you and your parents will have to provide proof of your economic status. If you’re relying on past taxes, there’s a data retrieval tool that makes it easy to upload past tax returns. If you have other paperwork, you may be required to make copies and bring it in person to your school’s Bursar office.
- Signing and submitting – Your FAFSA form isn’t done until you’ve officially signed it with the PIN you created for your FSA ID. Once you’ve made sure you answered every section to the best of your knowledge, sign it and submit it.
Documents Required by FAFSA
Before starting your FAFSA application, you should gather all the necessary proof and paperwork, so it’s easily accessible. You’ll need:
- Your previously created FSA ID
- You and your parent’s social security numbers
- Drivers license or ID number (student or parent)
- Previous year’s tax records
- Records of untaxed income (like child support or federal benefits)
- Asset Records (including your savings and checking accounts, stocks, bonds, and real estate holdings)
- List of schools you’ve applied to
Most of these documents should be at-hand anyway, but if you’re missing any, you should work to obtain copies before you move on to filling out the application. FAFSA requires exact numbers, so it’s a bad decision to estimate o your family’s holdings. Completing the document as accurately as possible for the best result.
Drew Hendricks is a contributor to Forbes Inc and Entrepreneur