In case you haven’t heard, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for 2020-21 is available on October 1st. That means that it’s time for high school seniors to collect all their documents so they can fill out the FAFSA. Why? Because you will need to have submitted the FAFSA to be eligible for financial aid awarded by the federal government, colleges, and many states. And the sooner, the better. While filling out the FAFSA isn’t the key to great financial aid, it is a necessary step.
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If you don’t think you need to fill out the FAFSA, you need to read I won’t qualify for financial aid, why should I fill out the FAFSA? It may not be fun but it’s a good way to avoid leaving free money on the table. Besides, The Department of Education estimates the average time to complete the FAFSA, including gathering documents, to take two hours and it is two hours well spent. If you find yourself needing some help with the FAFSA, try these resources first.
Free FAFSA Web Resources
The FAFSA website has several resources that can help you with the FAFSA. You can estimate your eligibility for federal student aid by completing the FAFSA4caster. You can also print out the “FAFSA on the Web Worksheet” to help you get your information organized before you start the application.
Download the “Complete the FAFSA” for a detailed guide to completing the application including help on specific questions.
If you’re looking for help on a specific question, I highly recommend this website. The tutorial makes it very simple to find things quickly since it’s easy to tab through the sections with all the questions listed on the side. All you have to do is click on the area you need more information.
Khan Academy has a paying for college section that includes a series of videos that walk-through the FAFSA as well as the PROFILE. If you’re just looking for a quick answer, this probably isn’t it.
The FAFSA Help Guide takes you through filling out the FAFSA by showing each screen of the online application. You have to fill out contact information to get the PDF version but you can use the website version without having to give your information. You can go through the online version to see if it’s worth the trouble to download the PDF. While there isn’t a list of questions on the website you can reference for help, the search function is very useful if you’re trying to find specific information.
NerdWallet provides FAFSA guides for various family situations such as “my parents are divorced.” This isn’t very detailed information but can help people get the process started. Users can also submit questions to be answered by the website’s counselors.
This is a one stop explanation for everything FAFSA. It covers everything from when to apply, numbers showing why everyone should apply, guide for applying online, and a FAQ section. It is not a detailed, question by question walk through.
They provide a video walk-through available on YouTube. They also offer a PDF you can download on their website. It’s not a step-by-step guide but includes a section on tips for students in unique situations.
Download the PDF on FAFSA Tips and Common Mistakes to Avoid.
This PDF is not a step-by-step guide but does answer some of the most commonly asked questions students and families might have.
In-Person FAFSA Help
Pay attention for announcements from your high school and local libraries for these type of free events.
Form Your Future (FAFSA completion events)
The National College Access Network has taken over the College Goal Sunday program. Get free help with the FAFSA in person by attending a College Goal Sunday/FAFSA completion event. The website links to resources and events in each state (it’s easy to miss, look at the bottom of the page.)
Some states have agencies that provide assistance in completing the FAFSA. For example, the EducationQuest Foundation in Nebraska provides free help by appointment. The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, Invested (Indiana), California Cash for College, Georgia Futures, and the Finance Authority of Maine conduct In-Person Help Events.
Real Time FAFSA Help Options
Talk with a live person by calling the Federal Student Aid Information Center: 1-800-4FED-AID (1-800-433-3243)
You’re starting to see more social media options as well. Students can use chat at Federal Student Aid and visit the New York Higher Education Services Corporation on Facebook to get their questions answered.
Financial Aid/FAFSA Webinars
Paid FAFSA Preparers
As when completing your taxes, families can choose to pay a preparer to complete the FAFSA. In the past, some companies took advantage of students charging them to complete a form that they were unaware that they could complete for free. So there is a great deal of emphasis on not having to pay to file the FAFSA and available resources to help with completing the form.
However, given that Mark Kantrowitz, an expert of the FAFSA, states in the New York Times that “Even a certified public accountant or certified financial planner may not have in-depth knowledge of the intricacies of federal student aid laws and regulations” you would think hiring an actual expert would be a good thing. If you decide you would rather spend money than time in completing the FAFSA, practice due diligence in selecting a provider.
And to keep a little perspective, read The Top Ten Ways A FAFSA Is Like A Colonoscopy.
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