The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA) was designed to make life easier for students and parents applying for all governmental college tuition aid. Whenever it comes to finances, there can be a tendency to feel overwhelmed or confused, but Playbill is here to help.
As part of Playbill's Back to School week, we walked through the process of completing a FAFSA for actual performing arts students and prepared a real-world guide on how to navigate your way to financial aid.
First off, timing is important. Filing opens for the following school year each October. The pool of aid money is limited, so you are well advised to file as soon as possible. The federal deadline to file for the 2020–2021 school year is not until June 2021, but many individual schools and states had deadlines earlier this year. If you haven't submitted a FAFSA form for the 2020–2021 school year, do so ASAP, as it is still possible to get funding! If you are applying to enter school in Fall 2021, wait until October 1 to begin.
Filing early may allow students to know their aid amount before committing to a school. Check the deadlines for schools to which you are applying on the FAFSA website.
Most colleges and universities use the FAFSA process to determine who gets financial aid and how much. Millions of dollars in aid are available, so it is in your best interest to apply for your share. Applying for FAFSA is free and the application takes place entirely on the web (although there is a printed form you can use), at StudentAid.ed.gov. The process closely resembles filling out a tax return. Some people actually hire accountants to do it for them, but most students can do it themselves, or with some help from parents, guardians or other financially savvy friends. Playbill will walk you through it step by step, below:
Take an hour or two the day before you decide to fill out the form to collect all of the information and documents you need. Before you start, we recommend:
1. Have a copy of your 2018 and 2019 income tax returns, as well as those of your parents. There is a way to import much of the information directly from the IRS database, which makes life easy, but have your returns nearby, just in case. Students and families are required to report tax return information to help higher education institutions make decisions on financial aid amounts.
2. Keep in mind that the FAFSA is designed to be filled out by the student. All the directions are worded using “you” to mean the student. If you are a student filling out the FAFSA for yourself, no problem. But if you are a parent filling out the form for your child, you must engage in a bit of acting and remember that “you” means your child. If FAFSA asks you how much you earned last year, that means how much your child earned last year. FAFSA has created a video to help parents—we recommend checking it out.
3. Have a list of the colleges to which you are applying. If you are applying to a state system with many branches, make sure you have the name of the correct branch. For example, “University of California” is not enough; you need to specify Los Angeles, San Diego, or whichever of the other branches you hope to attend.
4. Create a hard-copy manila folder or a master file on your desktop where you will copy down and store all usernames, passwords, college code numbers, confirmation numbers, and phone help numbers. There will be lots of them and they will be easy to forget. Save this folder in a safe place because you will need to re-apply for FAFSA every year and will need to have all these same numbers at hand. Take a moment to write down or type up each of these down as you go along. Consider using an encrypted password-saving app such as LastPass or 1Password for security.
5. One last thing before you begin filling out FAFSA—you will eventually need to “sign” your application. This can be done electronically, but you will need to go to the FAFSA page to create an user ID and password. You will need your date of birth, Social Security number, and Selective Service status (keep in mind that most male students of potential draft age must be registered in order to receive FAFSA aid). This can be done automatically while applying for FAFSA. The process takes about 5 minutes, but it will take up to a day before your information is confirmed and you're able to fill out the form (hence why we recommend doing this the day before).
Once you have your documents, your list of colleges, your ID, and your master information folder, you’re ready to fill out FAFSA.
Filling Out FAFSA
1. Make sure you are on StudentAid.ed.gov, not one of the commercial sites that will charge you.
2. Click on the “Start Here” button. Enter your user ID and password (once you get that confirmation email saying you're all set to begin the process).
3. Click “Start 2020-2021 FAFSA” button. You'll be prompted to create a save key, a password 4-8 characters to access this specific application. Clicking “Next” at the bottom of each page automatically saves what you have done. If you need to stop filling in at any time, click the “Save” button at the bottom of the page, and it will retain everything you have done so far.
4. Review the student information and introduction page before starting the form.
5. The first section is Student Demographics. Reminder: if you are a parent or other friend or relative of the student, “you” from now on refers to the student. Be prepared to fill in information about the student’s full legal name, date of birth, and Social Security number. In addition, you'll need contact information (permanent address and email—avoid temporary addresses like ones assigned by high school), residency status, telephone number, and driver’s license details (if applicable).
6. The latter part of this section involves several eligibility questions, including family education history, citizenship, plus any financial aid or criminal history. Be sure to click "yes" for work study, because this is an opportunity to get extra aid (and it's non-binding at the application stage).
7. The next section is School Selection. Using the search function, add colleges to your list—if you do not know the six-digit school code, you can search by state, city, or school name. You can add a maximum of 10 schools. Once you've completed your list, you'll need to designate whether you plan to live on campus, off campus, or with your parents for each school. (They’re not being nosy; they use these costs to help determine how much they think you can afford.)
8. The third section is Dependency Status. This section requires some information about the student’s family to determine their status as a dependent or independent student.
9. The fourth section is Parent Demographics, which requires their marital status, social security numbers, contact information, and tax returns . There is an option to connect with the IRS’ records and import tax return information—this is a time saver and recommended. Otherwise information from tax worksheets will have to be input manually, although the FAFSA site helpfully states the tax form line number for each piece of information.
10. The fifth section is Financial Information and will require the tax returns of the student. Similar to Parent Demographics, the IRS’ records can be imported into the FAFSA form.
11. The final section is Sign and Submit. You can print out the form, sign it, and mail it in, but it is much easier to “sign” electronically. Applications filed online are processed within three to five days. Those mailed in may take up to 10 days to process.
What Happens Next
1. The confirmation page may prompt you to apply to other state-run tuition aid programs (where applicable) to get even more aid money.
2. Information will be sent to the schools you specified, each of which has its own income guidelines. They will use the FAFSA info to decide whether you are eligible or not for grants, work study, and federal loans, and for how much.
3. Set a reminder to sign back in to FAFSA with your password to update your information as soon as you file your 2020 taxes. You may be eligible for more aid.
If you have a problem, StudentAid.gov.ed has a troubleshooting page or you can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center toll-free at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).
Note that FAFSA does not cover every type of financial aid. If you find that the school of your choice offers not enough aid, or no aid at all, you may wish to apply separately for commercial and private loans or local scholarships (we recommend looking at Scholarships.org to see an entire database of potential aid). Those applications are not covered by FAFSA.