Editor's note: This post is part one of two about the financial aid process.
Most students and their families have a keen interest in financial aid, for obvious reasons. Fortunately, it has never been simpler to apply. A single, standardized online form at fafsa.ed.gov makes previous ways of applying (pen, paper and snail mail) look like riding a tricycle on the bypass.
FAFSA , the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is your gateway to all Federal student aid programs, including low-interest student loans and grants. It also begins the state grant program process.
David Hershey, PCA&D's user-friendly director of financial aid, wants you to get very, very comfortable with FAFSA. “It’s the jumping off point for all things financial aid,” he says, “ and it’s getting easier to use.”
“For example, for the first time this year, when you are done filling out your information online, it asks Pennsylvania residents if they would like to fill out the PHEAA state grant section.” (Residents of other states are steered to their respective programs.)
What about deadlines? If you’ve heard that you should have started filling out the FAFSA on January 1, don’t panic. “It’s very important for Pennsylvania residents to have the FAFSA application completed earlier than May first,” says Hershey. “So complete it in February or March. That way you’ve got a month or two to correct any errors or missing information.”
Income taxes must be done first, however. “Tax time is FAFSA time,” Hershey notes. “After completing your Federal tax forms, keep them out, get online, and get it done.” Family income and assets are plugged into a formula to calculate a very important number, the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
For students and families who have difficulty filling out the online FAFSA form, free help is available from PCA&D’s financial aid department. Since the form must be updated every year, Hershey says, “by the time students are seniors, they’re pretty good at it.”
What’s the biggest mistake people make about FAFSA? Delaying because they haven’t settled on a college. “I like to say, as long as your search is narrowed down to 10 schools, you’re good to go,” says Hershey. “So, don’t let that stop you from getting FAFSA done, especially if you’re getting close to deadlines.”
Read Part II in which we compare FAFSA with Angry Birds (while providing step-by-step instructions).