In most states, when you file your Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA is also used to determine your eligibility for financial aid from your state government as well as federal pell grants. After filing your FAFSA, the Department of Education will issue you a Student Aid Report, which will tell you how much you’re expected to contribute to your education costs based on your financial means. The SAR is also sent to the college you’ve selected, and they will then proceed to build an aid package around your specific needs, using several different kinds of aid. The information on the SAR is also sent to the government agency in your state that administers student financial aid. Be advised that most colleges and states have much earlier deadlines for applying for aid than the federal government does; you need to get your paperwork completed as soon as possible.

Besides aid coming from colleges (scholarships) and the federal (pell grants) and state governments (state grants), there are thousands and thousand of sources of college aid in the private sector. If you’re still in high school, schedule a meeting with your guidance counselor who may be aware of local sources of aid. Another great way of locating more aid is by using one of the popular websites that perform scholarship searches.

The FAFSA is going to be the centerpiece of your plan for acquiring financial aid. The federal Department of Education has set up a website, http://www.fafsa.ed.gov, where you can view and fill out all the necessary forms. You can also get paper forms from your high school guidance counselor, any college financial aid office, and most public libraries.

Getting Federal Financial Aid

The Department of Education is the largest provider of student aid in America, by far. College students receive some 60 billion dollars a year in financial aid from the federal government. This mostly comes in the forms of student loans, and grants that don’t have to be repaid, but also includes some work study programs.

The process for obtaining federal financial aid can seem intimidating at first, but it’s actually quite easy and streamlined. Prospective students need to make sure all their ducks are lined up in a row before beginning, and the government has tons of help, including online, for anyone needing assistance. Do you qualify for federal assistance? Ask yourself these questions::

  • Can I show a need for financial aid?
  • Am I a US citizen, or eligible non- resident?
  • Do I have a high school diploma, or GED?
  • Have I registered with Selective Service, if required?
  • Do I have a valid Social Security number?

You’ll need to answer YES to all the questions above to qualify for most federal financial aid. So if for some reason you haven’t yet obtained a Social Security number, that should be your top priority before applying for aid. You can find out how to obtain one at http://www.ssa.gov. And if you’re a male between 18 and 25, make sure you’re registered with Selective Service. It’s the law, and not registering automatically disqualifies you for federal aid. You can register online at http://www.ssa.gov.

FAFSA and Pell Grant

The next step is to apply for a Department of Education PIN, or Personal Identification Number. This is much like a PIN for an ATM or check card, and enables you to apply for federal aid online, and check the status of your application, update your personal details on your federal aid account, etc. Your PIN serves as a legal signature. You can receive your PIN in 1-3 days by email, or 7-10 days by postal mail. To sign up for your PIN number visit http://www.pin.ed.gov.

Once you have your PIN, the next step is to complete the FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. You’ll want to do this as quickly as possible, and set aside several hours to fill the form out completely. If you still live at home, you’ll want your parents’ or guardians’ tax returns handy. It’s probably a good idea to have your parents or guardians help you fill it out. The FAFSA is like your passport to federal aid, and most state and college aid, too. It’s much faster and easier to fill out the FAFSA online rather than on paper, which is why you’ll need a PIN. You’re allowed to file the FAFSA on paper, but it slows the process down considerably. And keep in mind that you must file the FAFSA between January 1 and June 30 of your senior year in high school (or the year you plan to enroll in college if you’ve already graduated from high school). Obviously, the sooner you fill out this form the better, especially considering that financial aid, even from the federal and state governments, isn’t unlimited, and if you file late you run the risk of being turned down, even if you qualify. So it’s best to start as early as possible.

Once you’ve submitted your completed FAFSA, in a week or so you’ll receive an SAR, or Student Aid Report. This will show you what kinds and how much federal aid you qualify for, based on the difference between how much your college will cost, and how big your families EFC, or Expected Financial Contribution, is. The SAR will also be sent to the colleges you’ve chosen to apply at to help them design a total aid package based on your specific needs.

Applying for federal financial aid isn’t hard, but there are several steps involved. Start early, fill out all the necessary paperwork as soon as possible, and you’ll find that process is much easier than you thought. If you’ve already got a Social Security number, and a Selective Service number (if required), you’re ready. You can go to the Department of Education’s FAFSA website, http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/index.htm, and sign up for a PIN, and you’ll be ready to go as soon as January rolls around.