UPDATED FOR 2023! Financial Aid: Filling out the FAFSA and What Comes Next

Jan 24, 2023 
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UPDATED FOR 2023! Financial Aid: Filling out the FAFSA and What Comes Next

It’s January, which means it’s also when college applications for regular admission are due. As members of the Class of 2023 anxiously wait to find out if they’ve been accepted, it’s the perfect time to shift focus to how to pay for college. With the cost of tuition rising steadily over the past decade, more and more students will require some sort of financial aid. Students can receive financial aid from the federal government, state government, colleges, and scholarships. 

Sources of merit-based or needs-based funding like scholarships and grants may offer “free money” with no strings attached, but many students depend on student loans to cover college costs. To figure out the best way to finance a college education, it’s important to understand how to apply for financial aid, how to interpret your award letters, and ultimately weigh your options to choose the school that offers you the best return on your investment. 

First, the FAFSA

As you make your way through the financial aid process, you’ll become familiar with an alphabet soup’s worth of acronyms. At the top of the list is the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is used to determine your eligibility for federal and state grants, work-study, need-based school scholarships, and student loans. 

For students applying to college for the 2023-2024 school year, applications became available on October 1, 2022 and should be completed as soon as possible, preferably at the same time as your college applications to maximize your chances to get the best aid package. The FAFSA can be completed up until June 30, 2023, but be aware of meeting state deadlines and deadlines for your schools.

In order to complete the FAFSA, both students and parents must create their own FSA ID accounts and have the following information available: Social Security Numbers, Federal Tax Returns and W-2’s (2021), 2021 untaxed income, checking and savings account statement balances as of FAFSA filing date, investment records, and email addresses. You will also need to be prepared to select up to ten schools to receive access to your FAFSA information. For more detailed information about how to fill out your FAFSA, visit the Federal Student Aid website.

After you complete and submit the FAFSA, within 3-5 days you should receive an email containing a link to your Student Aid Report (SAR). An SAR will list your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and Data Release Number (DRN). Your DRN is basically a four-digit PIN you can use to update or change any information on your FAFSA. What you really want to look at is your EFC. Even though it seems like this number is the amount you’ll have to pay, it’s not. It’s just a number that helps determine your eligibility for student aid. Review your SAR carefully to make sure all of the information is correct and, if necessary, make any corrections. Pay extra close attention to whether or not you’ve been selected for verification, or an audit, because it means you have to send additional information ASAP.

Beyond the FAFSA: CSS and Scholarships

When it comes to financial aid, the FAFSA is the key to unlocking most sources of funding. However, most students will also have to complete state grant forms (e.g. PHEAA’s PA State Grant Program) and the College Board’s College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS). The CSS helps students access additional sources of need-based funding outside the federal government as well as institutional scholarships. There is a $25 fee for the CSS, but students can get fee waivers if they qualify. 

Scholarships are the best kind of financial aid because it’s money you don’t have to pay back. There are so many types of scholarships available—from national, regional scholarships, and local scholarships to scholarships based on merit, major, and even hobbies—that students should try to apply for as many as they can as early as they can. To get started on your scholarship search, visit websites like FastWeb and talk to your school counselor. 

Understanding your Financial Aid Award Letter

Students typically receive Financial Aid Award Letters in March or April, or around the same time they find out if they’ve been accepted to college. Financial Aid Award Letters outline the financial aid package offered by each college. Here’s a great infographic that breaks down the three main sources of funding.

Financial aid is based on financial need and is intended to make up the difference between your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) and the COA (Cost of Attendance): COA – EFC = Financial Need. So while you’re deciding which admission offers to accept, it’s equally important to consider the financial aid packages outlined in each school’s Financial Aid Award Letter. 

Not all Financial Aid Award Letters are the same. Some schools will include the cost of room and board in the COA, for example, while others will omit this information. If that wasn’t confusing enough, some Financial Aid Award Letters won’t include important details like a loan’s interest rate or whether loans are need-based or private. Carefully compare offers from each school, and if any costs are not listed, make sure you do your own calculations. A great way to compare financial aid packages and costs for each school is to use the College Board’s Compare Aid Awards Calculator or create a spreadsheet similar to this one from Best College Fit.

Making Good Financial Aid Decisions

So, it’s decision time. Of course, a big part of what will determine where you choose to go to college is how high a particular school ranked on your college list. The more a school syncs up with your college dreams, the more willing you’ll probably be to take on more substantial financial aid burdens. But don’t let your heart get in the way of your head! 

When you’re choosing not only which admission offer to accept but also which financial aid package to accept, it’s important to carefully consider both affordability and return on investment. You can begin the process of weighing the pros and cons of each school and its financial aid awards by visiting MySmartBorrowing.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the net price you will pay after you subtract the aid you decide to accept?
  • How much of your aid is “free money” (e.g. scholarships, grants, work study)? 
  • What conditions do you have to meet to get free money (e.g. minimum GPA, major, etc.)?
  • What work study opportunities are available? Are you willing to do the work while studying?
  • Is the aid you receive distributed every year or just once?
  • Will aid increase along with tuition increases?
  • How much of your aid comes from government loans that must be repaid?
  • Will you need private loans?
  • What is the graduation rate?
  • What are the employment outcomes for graduates?
  • Do you expect to earn enough after graduation to make payments on your loans?

That’s a lot of questions! What it all boils down to is making sure you choose a school and a financial aid package that gets you closest to the perfect balance of offering you the experiences and opportunities you want while also not burdening you with more debt than you can reasonably expect to repay after you graduate. 

How A+ Can Help

The goal of any financial aid plan for college should be to rely as little as possible on money that has to be paid back. The best way to get “free money” besides need-based grants is to earn merit-based scholarships. A+ Test Prep and Tutoring can not only help students boost their GPAs and test scores with academic and test prep tutoring, but our tutors can also assist students with writing and editing scholarship application essays. 

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Director Joelle Faucette can be reached at 215-886-9188.

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