The financial aid eligibility process can be tedious and difficult to navigate. Planning ahead and starting the process early is a great way to ensure that your journey is as smooth as possible!
It is in your best interest to make the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) a priority as early as January 1st of your senior year and every year thereafter while you are in college. Understanding that it is unlikely that your family will have tax documents ready by early January, you are able to use the previous year’s tax return to complete your initial FAFSA. For example, as of January 1st, 2015, you could have filed your FAFSA using your 2014 tax return by stating that you ‘Will file’ your taxes (provided you do intend to file for 2015). Note: Don’t forget to log back in and update your application by submitting a ‘Correction’ after completing your 2015 return. At that time, it is best to utilize the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically link your tax return to your FAFSA, an action that will help you avoid a process that is called Verification (…but we’ll get to that a bit later).
Think of filing the FAFSA like buying concert tickets for a really popular band…if you’re not in line and ready to buy when they go on sale, you may end up with seats in the back row! By filing your FAFSA early, you receive priority status as colleges and universities consider students for need-based aid. In addition to federal aid, such as the Pell Grant and various student loan programs, many states offer special funding for students who qualify. In 2015, Illinois students with significant financial need who planned to attend college in-state and filed their FAFSA by February 22nd were eligible to receive the Monetary Award Program Grant (MAP). Many of my students in this situation received around $4,700 in money for college that does not need to be repaid. As you can see, there is a benefit to filing early!
When you file your FAFSA, you identify up to ten schools with whom you’d like your financial information shared. The FAFSA itself is merely an application for federal and state financial aid – the school you attend is considered the administrator of the funds for which you qualify and will notify you of your eligibility. As long as your school has all the required information (including your FAFSA) and you have been accepted to the school, you typically receive a financial aid Award Letter in March or April.
There are occasions where students have been accepted into a school and have sent their FAFSA to the Office of Financial Aid but May 1st comes and goes without receipt of an Award Letter. This can be for a couple of reasons; 1) the school has not pulled the FAFSA and has yet to create an Award Letter, or 2) the student has been selected for a process known as Verification. The Award Letter gives you an outline of the financial aid you will receive for the coming school year. It details the cost of attendance and lists the aid available to you including grants, scholarships, loans, and work study. You do not have to accept any of the aid offered, but you do need to respond to let the Office know of your intentions. If you find yourself in a situation where you’ve not received an Award Letter by mid-April, reach out to the Office of Financial Aid at your potential schools and inquire about the status of your file.
If you have been selected for Verification, the important thing is to not panic. Verification is simply a means of requesting documentation to support what you stated on your FAFSA. If you were truthful and accurate when reporting your financial situation on your FAFSA (as you should be), Verification will be simple and relatively painless. It is often a matter of completing an additional form (or three) to clarify your dependency status, source or amount of household income, household size, or some other piece of information that triggered a request for a second look.
If you find yourself lost or questioning how to proceed, know that you are not alone! You are always welcome to contact your Admissions or Financial Coach at My College Planning Team for assistance. We look forward to being your guide on the road to a bright future.