Education

Frequently asked questions about federal student aid

Posted February 17

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— On Saturday, college financial aid officers and other volunteers in North Carolina will help students complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms. The program is open to students who plan to attend college in the 2016-17 academic year.

To help answer FAFSA questions, WRAL.com hosted a chat Wednesday with two experts – Hayley Broadhead, a senior financial aid counselor at Duke University and Kochie Vaughan, associate director of scholarship and student aid at North Carolina Central University.

Below are some frequently asked questions about FAFSA with information from the U.S. Department of Education.

Am I eligible to receive financial aid?

To be eligible to receive federal student aid, you must:

  • Be a citizen or eligible noncitizen of the U.S.
  • Have a valid Social Security number.
  • Have a high school diploma or a GED certificate, or have completed homeschooling. If you don’t, you may still be eligible for federal student aid if you were enrolled in college or career school prior to July 1, 2012. Go to http://studentaid.ed.gov/eligibility/basic-criteria for additional information.
  • Be enrolled in an eligible program as a regular student seeking a degree or certificate.
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress.
  • Not owe a refund on a federal student grant or be in default on a federal student loan.
  • Register (or already be registered) with the Selective Service System, if you are a male and not currently on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces.
  • Not have a conviction for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid (such as grants, work-study, or loans). If you have such a conviction, you must complete the Student Aid Eligibility Worksheet to determine if you are eligible for aid or partially eligible for aid.

Many types of federal student aid, such as the Federal Pell Grant or subsidized loans where the government pays the interest while you are in college, also require you to have financial need. Additionally, once you have a bachelor’s degree or a first professional degree, you are generally not eligible for Pell or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants).

What types of aid are available?

The U.S. Department of Education awards about $150 billion every year to help millions of students pay for college. This federal student aid is awarded in the form of grants, work-study funds, and low-interest loans.

Grants are typically awarded on the basis of need and generally do not have to be repaid. There are four types of federal student grants:

  • Federal Pell Grants are usually awarded to undergraduate students who have not yet earned a bachelor’s degree. (In some cases, students enrolled in post-baccalaureate teacher certification programs may receive Federal Pell Grants.) The maximum Federal Pell Grant award for the 2016-2017 award year is $5,775; however, the actual award depends on the student’s financial need, the college’s cost of attendance, the student’s enrollment status, and the length of the academic year in which the student is enrolled. Students can receive the Federal Pell Grant for up to the equivalent of 12 semesters.
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) are awarded to undergraduate students with exceptional financial need. The amount of the award is determined by the college’s financial aid office and depends on the student’s financial need and the availability of funds at the college.
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants are awarded to students who intend to teach in a public or private elementary or secondary school that serves students from low-income families. If the service requirement is not fulfilled, it could turn into a loan.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants are awarded to students whose parents or guardians were members of the Armed Forces and died as a result of performing military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001. To qualify, a student must have been under 24 years of age or enrolled in college at the time of the parent’s or guardian’s death.

The Federal Work-Study Program enables students to earn money during the school year while also gaining valuable work experience, typically in part-time, career-related jobs.

Loans consist of money that the student borrows to help pay for college, and must be repaid (plus interest). There are two federal student loan programs:

  • The Federal Perkins Loan Program is a campus-based program that provides low-interest loans to undergraduate and graduate students. The amount of the award depends on the student’s financial need, the amount of other aid the student receives, and the availability of funds at his/her college.
  • The William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program enables students and parents to borrow money at low interest rates directly from the federal government. The Direct Loan Program includes Direct Stafford Loans, which are available to undergraduate and graduate students, and Direct PLUS Loans, which are available to parents of dependent students and to graduate and professional-degree students. A Direct Stafford Loan might be subsidized or unsubsidized. Direct PLUS Loans are always unsubsidized. Subsidized loans are based on financial need and are available only to undergraduate students. The federal government pays the interest on subsidized loans while the borrower is in college and during deferment. Unsubsidized loans are based on the student's education costs and other aid received. The borrower must pay all accrued interest on unsubsidized loans.

Other forms of financial aid that might be available to students include:

  • State government aid. For more information, contact the state’s higher education agency.
  • Aid from the college. Students should contact the financial aid offices at the colleges they are considering for more information.
  • Scholarships. Some states, local governments, colleges, community organizations, private employers, and other organizations award scholarships based on academic ability or other factors. For more information, visit StudentAid.gov.
  • Tax credits for education expenses. For more information about the American Opportunity Tax Credit and Lifetime Learning Tax Credit, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/types/tax-benefits.
  • Aid for the military. For more information, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/types/grants-scholarships/military.

How do I apply for aid?

To apply for federal student aid, you must complete and submit the FAFSA.

By completing and submitting a FAFSA, you will automatically be considered for federal student aid. In addition, your state and college may use your FAFSA information to determine your eligibility for nonfederal aid.

Completing the FAFSA is an easy process, and it’s completely free. It is recommended that students file the FAFSA online, as applications process within 3-5 days; Those who submit a paper FAFSA can expect theirs to processes within 7-10 days.

For help with filling out the FAFSA, you can go to http://studentaid.ed.gov/resources#free-application-for.

How much financial aid am I eligible to receive?

The financial aid office at your college will determine how much financial aid you are eligible to receive. Your eligibility for most federal student aid depends on a variety of factors, including your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), your year in college, your enrollment status and the cost of attendance at the college you will be attending.

Note: Your EFC is not the amount of money your family will have to pay for college nor is it the amount of federal student aid you will receive. Think of the EFC as an index number used by your college to calculate how much financial aid you are eligible to receive.

For more information, contact the financial aid office at your college or see Funding Your Education: The Guide to Federal Student Aid at http://studentaid.ed.gov/resources.

What are the deadlines for filling out the FAFSA?

To be considered for federal student aid for the 2016-2017 award year, you can complete a FAFSA between Jan. 1, 2016, and midnight Central Time, June 30, 2017. Any corrections or updates must be submitted by midnight Central Time, Sept. 23, 2017.

However, many states and colleges have earlier deadlines for applying for state and institutional financial aid. You can find your state’s deadline at https://fafsa.ed.gov/deadlines.htm. Check with your college about its deadlines.

Because of the variation in state and college deadlines, it is highly recommended that you fill out the FAFSA as soon as you can after Jan. 1 to ensure that you do not miss out on available aid.

One thing to consider, however, is that the FAFSA asks for your tax return information for the current year. Often, this information might not be available until the end of January, at the earliest. Keeping this in mind, you can choose to either wait until you or your family files income taxes for the year or complete your FAFSA using estimates derived from the previous year’s tax returns and other documentation. (Note: If you do this, you will need to return later and correct any discrepancies between the estimated values and the current year’s tax returns.)

Will I need to fill out the FAFSA each year?

Yes. Because eligibility for federal student aid does not carry over from one award year to the next, you need to fill out the FAFSA for each award year in which you are or plan to be a student.

Your eligibility for financial aid can differ from year to year for various reasons, including your family’s financial situation and the number of your family members enrolled in college.

What will I need to fill out the FAFSA?

To complete the FAFSA, you will need:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your Alien Registration Number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)
  • Your most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s and other records of money earned. (Note: You may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.)
  • Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
  • Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
  • An FSA ID to sign electronically.

If you are a dependent student, then you will also need most of the above information for your parent(s).

Which FAFSA do I need to fill out?

If you will be attending college between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017, you should file a 2016-17 FAFSA.

If you are attending college between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, you should file a 2015-16 FAFSA.

If you plan to attend summer classes, you should contact your college’s financial aid office to determine which application they accept for summer sessions.

Will I need my parents' information?

If you can answer Yes to any of the following questions, you are considered an independent student on the 2016-2017 FAFSA, and you generally will not need to provide your parents’ information.

(Note: Law school and health profession students may be required to provide parental information regardless of their dependency status.)

However, if you can answer No to all of the following questions, you are considered a dependent student and generally your parents must provide parental information on your FAFSA:

  • Were you born before Jan. 1, 1993?
  • As of today are you married?
  • At the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, will you be working on a master’s or doctorate program (such as an MA, MBA, MD, JD, PhD, EdD, or graduate certificate, etc.)?
  • Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces for purposes other than training?
  • Are you a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces?
  • Do you now have or will you have children who will receive more than half of their support from you between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017?
  • 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, 2017?
  • 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?
  • As determined by a court in your state of legal residence, are you or were you an emancipated minor?
  • Does someone other than your parent or stepparent have legal guardianship of you, as determined by a court in your state of legal residence?
  • At any time on or after July 1, 2015, did your high school or school district homeless liaison determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?
  • At any time on or after July 1, 2015, did the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?
  • At any time on or after July 1, 2015, did the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?

If you have a special circumstance that prevents you from providing parental information, you may still be able to submit your FAFSA. However, your FAFSA will be considered incomplete. You must contact the financial office at your college and provide them with documentation to verify your situation. For more information, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/fafsa/filling-out#are-your-parents-unwilling.

What if I (or my parents) haven't completed 2015 taxes yet?

If you or your parents have not completed your taxes yet, you can estimate your income and other tax return information, and then correct your application after you have filed your taxes.

When estimating your tax return information, you should indicate that you will file your taxes. If your 2015 income is similar to your 2014 income, use your 2014 tax return to provide estimates for questions about your income. If your income is not similar, use the Income Estimator for assistance estimating your adjusted gross income, and answer the remaining questions about your income to the best of your ability.

You must return to update the estimates you provided with your 2015 tax return information once you file. To update your estimates, click Make FAFSA Corrections after logging in to FAFSA on the Web. Navigate to the “Finances” section and indicate that you have already completed your taxes. If your tax return information is available and if you are  eligible to do so, you should use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to transfer your tax return information into your application.

How do I correct my FAFSA?

To make corrections to your FAFSA, click the Login button on the home page and log into FAFSA on the Web, and then click Make FAFSA Corrections.

When correcting your FAFSA, you can:

  • Add or remove colleges from your application
  • Change your e-mail or mailing address
  • Correct any field in your FAFSA other than your Social Security number (SSN)

How do I check the status of my FAFSA?

To check the status of your FAFSA, click Login on the FAFSA on the Web home page to log in; your FAFSA status can be found on the “My FAFSA” page, which displays immediately after you log in if you have already started or completed a FAFSA.

To check on the status of financial aid being disbursed to you or your account, check with the financial aid office at your college.

Note: If you submitted a paper FAFSA, you can check the status of your application after it has been processed (roughly 7-10 days from the date mailed).

If you submitted your FAFSA online, the U.S. Department of Education will process your application within 3-5 days. If you submitted a paper FAFSA, your application will be processed within 7-10 days.

Once your application is processed, you will receive a copy of your Student Aid Report (SAR), which summarizes the information you provided on your FAFSA. Review your SAR and make sure all of the information is complete and accurate.

If there is any missing or incorrect information, then you should complete or correct your FAFSA as soon as possible.

Your SAR will include your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC determines your eligibility for a Federal Pell Grant, and the college uses the EFC to assess your eligibility for other federal and nonfederal student aid.

Once your FAFSA is processed by Federal Student Aid, your SAR is sent to the colleges that you listed on your FAFSA. Each college will use the information on your SAR to determine your eligibility for federal and nonfederal student aid. The colleges you listed are responsible for creating your award package and disbursing your financial aid. However, listing a college on your FAFSA is generally not sufficient to receive aid at that college, as most colleges do not create award packages for every applicant who lists the college on a FAFSA.

You should contact the financial aid office at the college you plan to attend to find out if there are additional requirements for receiving financial aid and to learn more about the process of applying for aid at that college.

How do I know if my FAFSA has been processed?

It typically takes 3-5 days to process a FAFSA that was submitted online. A paper FAFSA is processed within 7-10 days from the date it was mailed.

If you provided a valid e-mail address on your FAFSA, you will receive an e-mail notification that includes a link to your electronic Student Aid Report (SAR) at FAFSA on the Web. If you did not provide a valid e-mail address, the Social Security Number you included in your FAFSA did not match the one on file for you with the Social Security Administration, or you did not sign your FAFSA, then you will receive a paper SAR through postal mail.

You can check FAFSA on the Web to see if your application was processed, even if you did not submit the application online.

Note: Colleges have access to your information one day after it is processed, but each college has its own process and timeframes for accessing FAFSA information. Check with your college’s financial aid office to see if there are additional requirements for receiving financial aid.

When can I expect to hear from my colleges about my financial aid package?

The colleges that you listed on your FAFSA will use the information you provided on your FAFSA to determine your eligibility. (Colleges have access to your information one day after it is processed, but each college has its own process and timeframes for accessing FAFSA information.)

However, you should note that listing a college on your FAFSA is generally not sufficient to receive aid at that college. Most colleges do not create award packages for every applicant who lists the college on a FAFSA. You should contact the financial aid office at the college you plan to attend for information about applying for aid at that college.

After you have completed the college’s application requirements and the college has determined your eligibility, the college will create a financial aid award letter for you. This letter will detail the costs of attending the college for an academic year, as well as any grants, scholarships, work-study or loans you are eligible to receive.

Most colleges send out financial aid award letters around the same time as admission offer letters. The timing can vary from college to college, however, depending on factors such as the date that you submitted your FAFSA and the number of FAFSAs the college received.

Your college can tell you when you should expect to receive your award letter.

Where can I find more information about federal student aid?

You can find more information about federal student aid through the following sources:

  • Visit StudentAid.gov.
  • Get updates and information from the Federal Student Aid Facebook page and @FAFSA Twitter feed.
  • Visit the Federal Student Aid YouTube page.
  • Download the free publication, Funding Your Education: The Guide to Federal Student Aid by visiting http://studentaid.ed.gov/resources.
  • Contact our Federal Student Aid Information Center by clicking the link in the “Contact Us” section of our “Help” page.
  • Visit the financial aid office at the college you plan to attend.
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