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Stressed About the FAFSA? Don’t Panic – We’ve Got You Covered!

Let’s be real – filing the  Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Between the tedious questions, financial docs galore, and that looming sense of “am I doing this right?”, the process can quickly become overwhelming. But take a deep breath, because we’re here to be your guide. 

Think of us as your FAFSA sherpas, helping you navigate the mountain of federal aid forms. Our goal? Ensuring your journey is as smooth and stress-free as possible from start to summit. So let’s dive into the tips and updates that’ll make tackling the 2024-25 FAFSA a total breeze.

How to File the FAFSA
The $64,000 Question: When Can I File?

The starter’s pistol fired on December 31st, 2023 – that’s when the 2024-25 FAFSA officially opened for business. But here’s a pro tip: just because that’s the earliest allowed date doesn’t mean you have to wait. Quite the opposite, in fact! Submitting those forms ASAP puts you in prime position for claiming your slice of financial aid and FAFSA® aid information, especially if you complete the 2024–25 FAFSA form early.

It’s just like trying to score front-row concert tickets for your favorite band’s hot new tour. If you don’t claim your spot in line bright and early, you’ll likely end up with a lousy view from the nosebleeds. File that FAFSA pronto and you’ll get priority status as colleges and universities start dishing out need-based aid and state grants.

Also, it’s 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).

New Lingo to Know: All About “Contributors”

One new FAFSA term you’ll want to get acquainted with? “Contributor.” This refers to anyone – you, a spouse, bio or adoptive parents, etc., especially when considering eligibility for federal student aid. – who has to provide personal info, sign off on transferring IRS data, and consent to the whole shebang.

But don’t sweat it – the online form will spell out exactly who needs that coveted “contributor” role based on your situation. For dependent students, parents are auto-enrolled as contributors. If those parents are married but filed taxes separately, both will need to get in the contributor game.

Setting Up Your FSA ID: The VIP Pass

Your FSA ID – that’s your Federal Student Aid ID – is your VIP access to the entire FAFSA universe. Without it, you can’t retrieve those forms or sign a darn thing. And get this: as of 2024, even contributors without a Social Security number can create an FSA ID to electronically access and sign.

Once you and any contributors have those FSA IDs, you’re cleared to handle your respective sections independently.

The SAI: Replacing the “EFC”

Here’s another big update for 2024: Say bye-bye to the “Expected Family Contribution” (EFC) and hello to your new “Student Aid Index” (SAI). This is essentially a new formula for calculating just how much financial aid you could snag.

Rather than a simple dollar amount, your SAI, crucial for FAFSA®, will fall somewhere between -1500 and 999,999. Wherever you land on that spectrum, colleges will use your SAI, as reported on the FAFSA®, to determine the type and amount of financial aid up for grabs.

Read here for more information on the EFC and FAFSA® at the Federal Student Aid Information Center. This article will help explain exactly what makes up this number, which is what the family is expected to pay.

More Money for Pell, Yell!

Speaking of aid, more students will likely qualify for Pell Grant funds in 2024-25. While your SAI helps calculate Pell eligibility, it’s not the sole criteria. Family size, federal poverty guidelines and other factors also come into play.

The max Pell Grant for 2023-24 was a cool $7,395 – not too shabby! Official 2024-25 numbers are still TBD, but you could see an even bigger chunk of change headed your way, even if you don’t snag the full amount.

The FAFSA Isn’t the Finish Line – It’s Just the Starting Line
Submitting that FAFSA is a huge accomplishment, but it’s really just the first step. From here, the folks at your college or university take over as the financial aid administrators and ringleaders.

Once they have your FAFSA in hand – along with your acceptance letter, because you have to be an official student for them to shower you in aid – the magic happens. Their financial aid wizards will comb through your info, including your federal tax information and FAFSA questions, crunch the numbers, and put together an aid package just for you.

But don’t go holding your breath for an overnight reply. Patience is key as those packages take a little time to prepare. The general timeline is for official “Financial Aid Award Letters” to start hitting mailboxes and inboxes around late March through April.

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. Think of it as your personal pricing plan for attending that particular college.

Does the Award Package Look a Bit…Underwhelming?
Sadly, those first aid award offers don’t always live up to our imaginations (or desperately hopeful expectations!). But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with their initial proposal.

If that aid package seems more like a lightly giftwrapped box than the giant gift-wrapped car you wanted, it’s time to get proactive. Reach out directly to the financial aid office at your prospective school(s) and diplomatically ask about re-evaluating your package.

Maybe you have a special financial circumstance they weren’t aware of. Or a competing offer from another school you can use as leverage, backed by your FAFSA® information. The sooner you initiate that conversation, complete the FAFSA, and get your cards on the table, the better chance you have at a reassessment.

And remember that acceptance of any aid offer is 100% optional and non-binding. You can politely decline parts or all of it as you wait for other schools to put their best offers forward. Just remember, you do need to respond to let them know of your intentions. If you find yourself in a situation where you have not received an Award Letter by mid-April, reach out to the college or university’s Office of Financial Aid to inquire about the status of your application.

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, amount of household income, household size, or some other piece of information that triggered a request for a second look.

The Course to the Best Financial Aid Package

In an ideal world, by mid-April you’ll have all those award letters spread out in front of you, making an informed decision about which package is the best fit for your family’s needs and situation.

If you still haven’t received anything by then or have lingering questions, it’s perfectly acceptable – actually encouraged! – to follow up directly with financial aid offices. A gentle nudge can go a long way toward getting your paperwork processed and an offer delivered promptly.

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.

Your FAFSA Submission Summary: The Results Are In!
After firing off your FAFSA, you’ll receive a nifty FAFSA Submission Summary with all the details on your federal aid eligibility estimates. Unlike past “Student Aid Reports,” this new summary is designed to spotlight exactly which federal programs and amounts you may qualify for.

Just remember – this isn’t an official aid offer. Think of it more like a preview of what colleges will use to craft your real financial aid package. Then it’s simply a waiting game until those official offers start rolling in!

At the end of the day, the FAFSA may not be fun and games. But knowing the latest FAFSA® ins and outs – and having a guide to support you – can transform the whole process from a headache into a huge head start on making college affordable. Need assistance along the way? That’s what we’re here for!

If you find yourself lost or questioning how to file FAFSA, know that you are not alone. You are always welcome to contact your Admissions or Financial Coach at My College Planning Team for a free college planning session. We look forward to being your guide on the road to a bright future.

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Updated with FAFSA® information: March 22, 2024
Author: Billie Jo Weiss
Editor: Katherine Williams

Billie Jo Weis

After receiving her BA in Accounting from San Jose State University and quickly attaining her CPA license, Billie Jo gained over 20 years of experience in accounting and finance at a variety of companies including Symantec Corp, Thomas Weisel Partners (a San Francisco investment firm), several Silicon Valley startups and at a Certified Public Accounting firm serving high net worth individuals with their taxes.

She has assisted hundreds of college-bound families with strategies on how to pay the least amount for college and she is also the Head of the Appeals Team.

Billie Jo Weis is a mother of three high school boys. With a passion for family success, she has devoted the past 15 years to her boys' athletic, social and academic lives, including volunteer work at her children’s schools with such programs as Junior Achievement.

Billie Jo is driven and passionate about helping families with financial strategies on how to find the most cost-efficient options to pay for college. With three teenagers in high school, Billie Jo knows first-hand the challenges and concerns of preparing for the cost of college.

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