Whether you're familiar with the free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) or you plan to complete it for the first time this fall, you might have multiple questions about how to fill out the forms. But one thing is absolute: the FAFSA isn't just for those applying to four-year colleges.
That was the word from Fred Stennis, supervisor and senior advisor with the U.S. Department of Education's Federal Student Aid Awareness & Outreach Group. Stennis offered several helpful tips during the National Association of College Admissions Counseling's webinar, "2021-22 FAFSA Updates," on August 18.
Check out 10 of the best practices that Stennis shared so you can complete your FAFSA with ease this fall.
1. Adult Learners, Grad School Applicants Eligible for FAFSA
One of the biggest misconceptions about the FAFSA is that it's just for new high school graduates attending four-year colleges, Stennis said. But the reality is that the financial aid application extends to a variety of student types, so when the 2021-2022 school year form opens on October 1, all eligible applicants can complete it.
Students enrolling in online courses, adult learners, those pursuing vocational credentials, students headed to two-year schools and grad school applicants are among the groups that can apply for financial aid. "All are welcome and we want all those groups to engage with completing the FAFSA form and not limit yourself to thinking it's just for traditional recent high school graduates," he said.
2. You Can Sign up for Your FSA ID Now
Your first step when applying for financial aid is to obtain an FSA ID. For dependent students, the parent and the student should each get a separate FSA ID, Stennis noted. "It is basically a username and password combination and you use this FSA ID for so many things, it's so critical," he said. "It is used as your signature, so you can't copy someone else's FSA ID and use that." Keep it as private as you would an ATM PIN number, he noted.
To create the FSA ID, you'll go to studentaid.gov/fsaid and click "Create an Account" on the right-hand side of the page. Then you'll enter your name, date of birth, Social Security Number, phone number and other information.
You don't have to wait until the FAFSA opens in October to obtain an FSA ID, Stennis said. "By all means, you can apply for one now, and that FSA ID is yours for life," he said. In other words, you won't have to get a new ID every year of college.
3. Understand the Dependency Questions
If you're a dependent student, then the FAFSA will ask for financial information regarding your parents, but some students are confused about which parent they should list.
If your parents are married, you should list both parents on the form. That's also the case if your parents aren't married but they live together, he added.
For students whose parents never married or are divorced, you'll list the parent who you spent the most time with during the last 12 months, he said. If you truly spent the same amount of time with both parents, then you'll list the parent who provided the most financial support over the past year.
If the parent you list is married, you'll also add the stepparent's financial information on the form. "But the bottom line is, for a dependent student, we want the parent's information and the student's information," he said.
4. You Can Complete a FAFSA Via the App
When the new FAFSA opens on Oct. 1, you can complete the form using a few different methods, Stennis said. If you want to fill out the forms on the web, you can go to fafsa.gov, but you also have the option of completing the forms on the myStudentAid mobile app.
"For our new users who may not already have the mobile app, we encourage you to download it," he said. For returning users, make sure you have updates enabled so the app will automatically update to the new version when it's deployed in October.
"We really have done a lot of back-end and front-end work to provide ease of use on the mobile app," he said. The app's new dashboard allows students to complete the entire FAFSA application directly from the mobile app, including signing the master promissory note, completing entrance counseling and more.
Any information you enter on the mobile app will appear on the fafsa.gov desktop version of the FAFSA and vice-versa to create a smooth process, he said. "It's totally connected with a smooth transition," he said.
5. You Can Now Transfer Schedule 1 Data from the IRS
Among the changes to the FAFSA this year, you'll find a new ability to transfer a Schedule 1 form from the IRS' website.
So if you answer "yes" to the FAFSA question about whether you or your parent filed a Schedule 1 with the IRS, the FAFSA will allow you to use the data retrieval tool (DRT) to automatically convert that information from the IRS and into the FAFSA, Stennis said. "I recommend that users use that tool because it will make it much easier to transfer that information onto the FAFSA form," he said.
6. Don't Expect to Find FAFSA4caster
The FAFSA4caster, which was an aid eligibility tool, will no longer be available on the government's website beginning with the 2021-22 admissions cycle, Stennis said. "It will be decommissioned in late September, so we don't want you to be surprised if you don't have access so that information after September, but we will have plenty of resources available at studentaid.gov," he said.
7. Check Loan Simulator Debut
The government will be rolling out a new tool to assist students as they navigate their loan options. "The new loan simulator is designed to help you make decisions about student loans," Stennis said. This will allow you to review how to lower your monthly payment, check out repayment plans, and "you can even discover how to pay off your student loans faster based on your goals," he said.
8. Remember to Check State Deadlines
Although this year's FAFSA will be available for 18 months after it debuts in October, many colleges encourage students to complete these documents early for optimal financial aid eligibility. "In addition, make sure you're paying attention to state deadlines," Stennis said. You should check these to ensure that you can be eligible for state aid as well as federal aid, he noted.
9. Avoid These Common Mistake
Stennis outlined a few of the most common mistakes that the government sees in terms of form completion, including transposing digits in Social Security Numbers or putting incorrect data into the DRT.
When using the DRT, you must include information that's identical to what's on your actual tax filing, Stennis said. For instance, if you got married after filing your taxes, your last name may be different now than it was at tax time. However, to use the DRT, you'll enter the information using the same data that was on your tax return.
10. International Students May Not Need to Complete FAFSA
Typically, only U.S. citizens are eligible to get federal financial aid, but there are some exceptions for non-citizens. For example, if you are a permanent resident or a US national — or you meet one of the other exceptions, then you can get an FSA ID. Check the FAFSA site to read all of the eligibility criteria.
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