October 1st is the first day families can access, complete, and submit the 2021-2022 FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and CSS Profile. Anyone logging in sooner will be completing forms for the wrong school year. But September is the month for families to prepare to apply for need-based aid. Here are some pointers to help you successfully navigate this process should you decide to apply.
    For current seniors and transfers applying to college for the 2021-2022 school year, the family's 2019 tax returns will be required. Be sure these have already been submitted and processed.
    • It is the student's FAFSA and CSS Profile, not the parent's, though often adults complete these forms on the student's behalf.
    • It is best for students to begin the process by creating their Federal Student Aid ID. This is their digital fingerprint associated with their name and email address. Here is where they should go to create their FSA ID: https://fsaid.ed.gov/npas/index.htm.
    • Anyone else who expects to access the student's FAFSA must create their own FSA ID as well, but only after the student has created his or hers. If the student is younger than 18, the parent will need to co-sign the FAFSA and will therefore require their own FSA ID.
    • After the student has created their FSA ID, his or her FAFSA can be started here: https://studentaid.gov/h/apply-for-aid/fafsa.
    • About 150 institutions also require the CSS Profile. The list of institutions is here, but it’s always best to verify with the institution itself: https://profile.collegeboard.org/profile/ppi/participatingInstitutions.aspx
    • Often within a few hours of submitting the FAFSA, the student will receive an email that it has been successfully processed. Within a few days, the student will receive another email containing instructions on how to access their Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR contains a crucially important number − their Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Parents overseeing the process should tell their children to forward all Department of Education emails to them, which may also include requests for further verification and documentation.
    • When beginning the FAFSA, best practice is to select the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). This will automatically populate many of the FAFSA's questions directly from the federal tax returns, making completion much simpler. Under recent Department of Education guidelines, these populated fields are shielded from the filer, though the financial aid offices will be able to view the numbers. If the DRT is not selected, financial aid offices will most likely request further verification from the filer that the numbers they have entered actually agree with their tax returns.
    • In certain circumstances, a filer will be ineligible to select the DRT. Here are the rules: https://studentaid.gov/help/irs-drt-eligibility.
    • In cases of separation, divorce, and non-traditional families, it may be unclear who should be listed as the parent on the FAFSA. Here are the rules: https://studentaid.gov/resources/fafsa-parent-text.
    • Many colleges will ask on the college application if the student expects to apply for need-based aid. It is important that the answer be accurate and truthful. If the student selects "no" and the college receives the FAFSA (and CSS Profile), one of three things may happen: 1) the college contacts the student to clarify whether or not he or she is actually applying for need-based aid, inconveniencing an already overworked financial aid office; 2) the college doesn't contact the student and processes the forms assuming the student is applying for need-based aid; 3) the college doesn't contact the student and assumes the student is not applying for need-based aid. The student would still be eligible for federal aid (typically student loans and Pell Grants), but may be ineligible for institutional grants, typically the largest source of need-based aid. So it's best to answer this question accurately the first time and not play games.
    • Since these forms are typically submitted once, listing all colleges, it is crucial that they are submitted before the earliest financial aid deadline. If a student is applying to college in the Early Decision or Early Action round, that could be as soon as November 1.
    • It is the student's responsibility to know their financial aid deadlines. Parents need to learn these deadlines and not miss them. Missing a financial aid deadline can seriously jeopardize a student's eligibility for aid.
    • A few institutions require the FAFSA, and possibly the CSS Profile as well, to be considered for merit aid. There is no trusted or curated list of these schools. It is the student's responsibility to learn from the school's website or directly from the admission office if they require any additional forms for merit aid consideration.
    • For families who do not want to apply for need-based aid but do want to make use of the federal student loan program, the FAFSA will need to be submitted. My recommendation for these families is to check "no" on the college application asking if the student expects to apply for need-based aid, to send an enrollment deposit to the school their student will attend by May 1, and then to submit the FAFSA letting the financial aid office know that it was submitted for the purpose of federal student loans only. This way, there is no confusion over whether the student is, or is not, applying for need-based aid.
    • For those families who are applying for need-based financial aid, the annual limit of federal student loans is usually included in the financial aid award, though a few schools have replaced these with additional institutional grants. For dependent undergraduate students, these limits are $5,500 for freshmen, $6,500 for sophomores, $7,500 for juniors, and $7,500 for seniors. For those taking longer than four years, this $27,000 4-year total undergraduate loan limit is increased to $31,000. For those borrowing for the current school year, the interest rate is 2.75% and fee about 1%, making this the first loan program to go to for those who want to borrow.