college financial aid for parents

Student Financial Aid Guide for Parents

Both students and their parents may find filling out the FAFSA form a daunting task, given that there are many complex questions to answer as well as all kinds of documents to use and pieces of financial information to provide.

As a result of this, committing mistakes is commonplace, which could delay or deny a student’s eligibility for aid.

In this post, some of the most important matters about FAFSA and completing it will be discussed. The CSS Profile, which is much like FAFSA, will be briefly talked about and quickly compared with FAFSA, too.

The following are the steps for filling out FAFSA will be discussed in this post:

  • Step 1: Create an FSA ID
  • Step 2: Access the FAFSA form
  • Step 3: Complete the Student Demographics section
  • Step 4: Indicate schools
  • Step 5: Answer questions on dependency status
  • Step 6: Complete the Parents Demographics section
  • Step 7: Provide financial information
  • Step 8: Double check information
  • Step 9: Sign and submit FAFSA form

Before anything else, let’s first quickly talk about FAFSA.

What is FAFSA?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form filled out by incoming and current college students in the US, designed to determine who is eligible for federal aid, including scholarships, grants, loans and work-study.

The FAFSA form is also used for state aid purposes and, in many instances, for the purpose of determining eligibility for institutional aid.

It was in 1992 when FAFSA came into being, and it originally came from the 1965 Higher Education Act (HEA).

Even if students believe they do not qualify for federal or state aid, it’s still a good idea for them to complete FAFSA — aid is available not only for less fortunate individuals, and most American students are eligible.

Do I need both parents’ information for FAFSA?

Dependent students have to provide information about both parents if their parents are living and legally married to each other or are living together and are not legally married, never legally married, divorced or separated.

On the other hand, if the parent is widowed or was not legally married, a student should answer FAFSA questions about that particular parent.

Note that with the new FAFSA the rules about parents are going to change, so stay tuned.

It’s important to keep in mind that independent students who are applying for aid are not required to provide parental information when filling out the FAFSA form.

What documents do you need to fill out the FAFSA

Students might have to gather different documents, depending on their circumstances such as whether or not they are US citizens or which tax form they use when providing information for FAFSA use.

However, everyone is required to have a social security number and also the social security number of the parents of dependent students.

Other than social security number, the following are some other documents or pieces of information students might have to provide or use as they complete FAFSA as part of college application process:

  • Driver’s license number
  • Federal tax information, tax documents or tax returns
  • Records of untaxed income
  • Information on cash, savings and/or checking account balances
  • Investments

How to Fill out FAFSA

Let’s talk about the nine steps to take when students and/or their parent(s) are filling out the FAFSA form.

Step 1: Create an FSA ID

The very first step to filling out the FAFSA form is creating an FSA ID.

An FSA ID is a combination of a username and a password necessary for logging in to US Department of Education systems on the internet, including those who need to sign FAFSA electronically — students, parents and federal loan borrowers.

Some other uses for the FSA ID include signing the master promissory note (MPN) and applying for repayment loans.

Creating an FSA ID involves visiting the Federal Student Aid’s website and providing one’s social security number, full name, date of birth, phone number and/or email. It usually takes around 10 minutes to create an FSA ID.

Those who will be completing FAFSA for the first time will be able to use their FSA IDs as soon as they’re created to sign and submit the FAFSA form online.

Otherwise, they may have to wait for 1 to 3 days for their information to be verified before they can begin to use their FSA IDs to renew and file the FAFSA form.

Both students and parents need to create their respective FSA IDs, remembering not to mix them up.

Step 2: Access the FAFSA Form

It’s also on the website of the Federal Student Aid where the FAFSA form is available.

Typically, FAFSA becomes available every October 1 each year — it’s best to complete and submit the form no sooner than it opens as students who do so often qualify for more scholarships and grants.

The federal deadline for FAFSA is June 30 of the end of the school year a student is seeking financial aid for. State and college deadlines can vary and are usually earlier.

Applicants for the academic year 2024 to 2025, however, will have to wait until December 2023 for the redesigned FAFSA form to open.

It’s important to keep in mind that the federal deadline remains the same.

Starting to fill out FAFSA is different for college-bound high school teens and their parents.

Students should click “I am a student” and then provide their FSA ID username and password.

Afterward, they should click “Next”.

Meanwhile, parents should click “I am a parent, preparer, or student from a Freely Associated State” and then enter the name, social security number and date of birth of the student, clicking “Next” after.

Step 3: Complete the Student Demographics Section

One of the most time-consuming parts of filling out FAFSA is where students are asked to enter information about themselves, which should not be mistaken for the Parent Demographic section, which we will tackle shortly.

Before anything else, let’s quickly discuss why it’s not always that it can take up a lot of a student’s time.

For every academic year that the undergraduate student wants to receive federal, state or even college aid, he or she should file the FAFSA form. It also means that the completed form should be submitted on or before the deadline.

However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every single section of FAFSA has to be filled out all over again each time.

A lot of the information in the Student Demographics section is automatically repopulated based on the FSA ID already created by the student, thus allowing him or her to save time.

Pre-populated or otherwise, the following are some of the things that need to be entered:

  • Social security number
  • First name, middle initial and last name
  • Date of birth
  • Telephone number
  • Email
  • Mailing address
  • Residency status

Step 4: Indicate Schools

Listing every college or university the student is considering is the next step in filling out the FAFSA form.

College-bound teenagers can add up to 10 different institutions of higher education to which they want all the pieces of information on their FAFSA sent.

Those who would like to add more schools than allowed may get in touch with the Federal Student Aid Information Center to add the colleges for them.

They can, however, do so only after receiving their Data Release Number (DRN), which is a 4-digit number found on the upper right corner of the Student Aid Report (SAR), paper or electronic.

The SAR, by the way, is a paper or electronic document from the Federal Student Aid where details about a student’s eligibility for aid can be found.

In adding schools to the School Selection section of the FAFSA form, high school teens may add those that they are considering no matter if they haven’t applied to them yet.

Also, there’s no need for them to remove institutions that they later decide not to apply to or attend.

Step 5: Answer Questions on Dependency Status

Identifying if the individual is a dependent student or an independent student is a critical step in completing FAFSA. That’s because it will determine whether or not he or she will have to provide parental information.

There are a series of questions to be answered in the Dependency Status questions.

For someone who is looking to work on an undergraduate degree and is filling out the 2023 to 2024 FAFSA form, for instance, answering the following, which are just some of the many questions, will enable him or her to know if information about the parent/s will have to be included to FAFSA or not:

  • Were you born before Jan. 1, 2000?
  • As of today, are you married? (Also answer “yes” if separated but not divorced.)
  • Do you now have — or will you have — kids who will receive more than 50% of all their support from you between July 1, 2023, and June 30, 2024?
  • Do you have dependents — other than your children or spouse — who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you, now and through June 30, 2024?
  • At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a dependent or ward of the court?
  • Has it been decided by a court in the state of your legal residence that you are an emancipated minor or that someone other than your parent or stepparent has legal guardianship of you?

Even if students who are preparing for college are living on their own, supporting themselves and even filing taxes on their own, they may still be considered dependent students for federal aid purposes.

Step 6: Complete the Parents Demographics Section

Individuals who are filling out the FAFSA form and are established as dependents after answering the various questions in the previous step need to have their parent(s) provide basic information in the Parent Demographic section.

Before anything else, let’s talk about who is considered a parent.

A biological or adoptive parent or a person that the state has determined to be a person’s parent — this is what the definition of a parent is as far as FAFSA completion is concerned.

Unless they have legally adopted students gearing up for higher education, grandparents, older siblings, foster parents, widowed stepparents and aunts and uncles are not considered parents.

However, under very limited instances, it’s possible for a dependent student to submit FAFSA without parental information. Some special circumstances that make such acceptable include the following:

  • The student’s parents are incarcerated
  • The student has left home due to an abusive family environment
  • The non-adopted student doesn’t know where his or her parents are and are unable to contact them

Having parents who refuse to provide information for FAFSA use or do not want to contribute to their children’s college expenses is not regarded as a special circumstance.

Step 7: Provide Financial Information

How much financial aid undergraduate students receive per academic year depends on their financial information.

It goes without saying that providing information about financial matters about the student and parent(s), if applicable, is a critical part of filling out the FAFSA form — it impacts a college student’s overall cost of attendance.

Since financial aid eligibility does not carry from year to year, students and/or their parents need to indicate their most recent financial information when submitting their FAFSA.

Depending on the kind of change in their financial status as of filing the FAFSA form, students may be eligible for more or less aid.

Fortunately, this part of completing FAFSA is simplified with the help of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT).

The IRS DRT, simply put, makes it possible for college-bound high school teenagers and their parents, too, who filed a US tax return with the IRS to access the IRS tax return information needed to complete the FAFSA form as well as Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plan requests by transferring the data directly into their forms.

When the IRS DRT is used, questions answered using it simply display “Transferred from the IRS”.

Step 8: Double Check Information

Before submitting FAFSA, it’s important for students and their parents to make sure that all the pieces of information they have provided are accurate and consistent to avoid unnecessary problems.

It is said that about a third of all FAFSA applicants are chosen by the Federal Department of Education — by selecting them randomly — for verification, which is performed by colleges and universities themselves.

Such is to make sure that postsecondary institutions are determining accurately which students qualify for financial aid.

As a matter of fact, small colleges verify each and every student who files the FAFSA form.

Failure to complete FAFSA honestly and accurately could leave the student pursuing an undergraduate degree paying for all college costs out of pocket or skipping attending college altogether.

On the other hand, falsifying information on the FAFSA, such as providing false statements of income, using false identities or forging signatures or certifications, could result in a fine of up to $20,000 or jail time (up to 5 years in prison), or both.

Of course, those who are involved would have to return any aid received.

Step 9: Sign and Submit FAFSA Form

Signing the form is the very last step to take when applying for FAFSA.

Individuals who need to sign the FAFSA form to be able to submit it are the college-bound student and his or her parent(s) if the teener who is looking to receive aid is a dependent.

Needless to say, an independent person need not have the FAFSA form signed as well by his or her parent(s) since no parental information was provided, to begin with.

There are a couple of ways to sign FAFSA: online and through mail.

Between the said options, signing the FAFSA form online is the fastest and easiest way. Such is done by providing the FSA ID, which can be skipped by the student if logging in to FAFSA was done with the FSA ID.

Of course, a dependent student will need to have the form signed by his or her parent — otherwise, he or she won’t be able to submit the FAFSA form to have the processing started.

Using a student’s and a parent’s respective FSA ID when signing FAFSA is of utmost importance.

The FAFSA form may also be submitted without signing it with an FSA ID, via mail. For this, on the Sign and Submit page, the “Other options to sign and submit” should be selected, followed by choosing “Print a signature page”.

However, it can take 7 to 10 days for FAFSA to be processed by means of this submission method.

Meanwhile, FAFSA is processed within 3 to 5 days through the electronic approach.

What is CSS Profile?

The College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile is an application for institutional financial aid — aid provided by the institution a degree-seeking student is attending — required by nearly 400 colleges, universities, professional schools and even certain scholarship programs.

The CSS Profile, like the SAT and AP programs, is administered by the College Board.

Even though it’s the College Board that created the CSS Profile, each school that uses it can decide which questions to ask and how to use the pieces of information obtained to determine the eligibility of a student for aid.

Although the vast majority of schools that use the CSS profile are private institutions, some are public.

CSS Profile vs. FAFSA

The CSS Profile is used by colleges and universities for institutional aid purposes. On the other hand, FAFSA is used not only as an application for federal financial aid but also state and, in many instances, college aid.

The CSS Profile costs $25 or the initial application and $16 for every additional college. FAFSA, meanwhile, is absolutely free.

Some colleges may require students who would like to determine their eligibility for aid to fill out both the CSS Profile and the FAFSA form. There are also those that use only FAFSA for application for institutional aid.

Let’s take a look at some of the key differences between the CSS and FAFSA:

Time to completeUp to 2 hoursAround 1 hour
DeadlineUsually January to MarchJune 30 (federal deadline)
RenewalEvery yearEvery year
Form fillerStudent and/or parentStudent and/or parent

Read Next: How to Prepare for College

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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