Understanding the Financial Aid Process 2021
Updated: Mar 22
Temperatures are cooling, leaves are changing colors, and people are digging into their closets to find jackets. That's right, fall is upon us, which means it's time to really start thinking about Financial Aid for college! This blog will provide you with the resources you need to understand and complete the forms, and we will highlight some important pieces to remember.
FYI, most of the content of this blog is directed toward parents, but students also play a role in completing these financial aid forms. We recommend finding a time to sit down as a family and navigate these forms together.
FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, opens on October 1st. The government provides excellent and clear step-by-step instructions to complete the forms here.
Take some time, sooner rather than later (ideally during the month of October), to create your FSA IDs. You can use this link to do so. It's important to complete this task in advance of your anticipated start of the FAFSA because it usually takes 2-3 days to verify your identity.
Students should create their own FSA ID first. Then one parent/guardian should create their FSA ID. Do not share this ID with anybody, even each other. The most common mistake we see when completing FAFSA is students and parents mixing up each other's IDs and it can be complicated to untangle that mess.
Keep in mind, ONLY ONE parent/guardian will create an FSA ID. Many families have special circumstances, including divorce and remarriages, etc. so here is a link to determine who should complete the FAFSA and what will be factored in. If you have already completed FAFSA for an older student, parents should use the same ID for all subsequent students applying for/in college.
If you get stuck or require assistance, you can contact 1-800-4-FED-AID for free guidance and support to navigate these forms.
The FAFSA for students intending to begin college in the fall of 2022 will require your tax information from 2020.
Many students/families will be eligible to utilize the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). If given the option, we recommend you do it! This tool auto-populates the majority of required financial information.
For students who are applying to more than 10 colleges, here are instructions to navigate adding additional colleges beyond the first 10.
Some colleges require the FAFSA and CSS Profile (see next section) to be completed in order to receive merit scholarships. This means that families who don't believe they qualify for Federal Financial Aid should likely still complete these forms if they would like any financial assistance from the college/university. If you are in this category, and are still unsure if you should complete the forms, please reach out to each school individually to inquire about FAFSA/CSS requirements to receive merit scholarships.
The CSS Profile
The CSS Profile is another form/algorithm that factors in some of the same, and often a lot more additional financial information from families. Essentially, it allows colleges and universities to offer families some additional institutional aid, beyond the federal aid offered through FAFSA.
Here is a list of participating CSS Profile schools.
Here is the link to information about completing the CSS Profile. On this page are links to the instructions to complete the form (in English and Spanish), information that will be helpful for families who are separated or divorced, and information about potential fee waivers for the form.
The initial fee to submit the form is $25, and then $16 for each subsequent submission. For this school year, the College Board will be waiving all fees for families with an Adjusted Gross Income of under $100,000.
What to Expect
Once you complete FAFSA, you will receive an email with documentation that includes a number at the top. This is your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). It is the number the government believes you should be able to afford to pay out-of-pocket for college for your student. Brace yourself, because very few families are happy with their EFC or believe that their EFC is an accurate reflection of their ability to pay for college.
Many families ask us if they should still complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile (for participating universities) if they don't anticipate qualifying for aid beyond the federal student loans, and they don't anticipate taking out those loans to pay for college. We highly recommend all families complete the forms, regardless of financial circumstances for two main reasons:
1) Some colleges actually require the forms in order to distribute merit scholarship awards to students and
2) If you do not complete the forms during the student's senior year of high school, and your financial circumstances change over the course of their college education, you may be ineligible to receive future aid.
It's important to remember that colleges DO NOT need to offer you enough financial aid to cover the cost up to that number. You will likely find that some (most) colleges will leave a gap between the total cost of attendance and your EFC. Meaning, even if your EFC is too high to afford, the school may still think you should pay even more beyond that EFC. There are some schools that will meet full demonstrated need, and here is the most accurate list. The vast majority of these schools are ultra selective, and there are even fewer that will meet full demonstrated need without student loans.
We recommend all families run the Net Price Calculator (NPC) on each of their college's websites ASAP. Take a screenshot of the NPC output for each school that includes the date/time stamp. If the financial aid offer comes back lower than this output, you can use the screenshots as leverage for negotiating for more aid/financial assistance. At bare minimum, the college/university will have to explain the discrepancy.
Here is a link to information about federal student loans, how much you can expect to be offered, a breakdown of subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and the caps for each academic year.
If you're not sure that you will qualify for federal student aid, please review the eligibility requirements.
While this pandemic life has become our new normal, many families have experienced significant changes to their financial circumstances during the 2020 tax year (the information used for FAFSA this year). You do not have an option of which tax year to utilize, but if you have experienced financial challenges/changes that are not reflected in FAFSA, once a student is admitted to each college, you can reach out to the financial aid office and request a Professional Judgement. There is nothing to complete at this point, and if you are in this boat, when the time comes, please let us know and we can help you navigate those murky waters.
I know this is a lot of information to digest. Please take it one step at a time. We recommend completing FAFSA soon after the October 1st deadline, but you are welcome to wait a week to ensure they have fixed all of the system glitches that inevitably occur in the first few days of opening.
Good luck (but I know you won't need it),
Jessica Chermak, LPC, CEP
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors