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It’s financial aid season across the U.S., and high school seniors and college students are already figuring out how they’ll pay for their education next year.

A big part of that calculation will be the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a yearly financial aid application process for students who can’t pay for their post-high school education outright, or about 85% of all first-time undergraduate students.

For some, like first-generation high school students, filing FAFSA is an intimidating ordeal, said Courtney Bell, college and career coordinator at Wichita South High School. Only about half of U.S. high school seniors usually complete the financial aid application, with Kansas most recently lagging that average at 46.9%.

But much of Bell’s job is to help demystify the financial aid and college admissions process, and the high school coordinator walked The Wichita Beacon through questions she typically gets about the federal financial aid application.

What is FAFSA?

What do I need to fill out FAFSA?

Why don’t students fill out FAFSA?

Is it ever too late to fill out FAFSA?

Where can I get help with FAFSA?

What is FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. High school seniors and college students alike fill out the application ahead of each upcoming college school year.

FAFSA is most known for determining student eligibility for Pell Grants, which are annual federal subsidies (as much as $6,495 this school year) to undergraduate students based solely on financial need.

But FAFSA is more than just a Pell Grant application, Bell said.

“It’s a three-in-one application,” Bell said. “When you apply for FAFSA, you’re applying for federal and state grant money, and it’s also a determining factor for university-level grant money and scholarships. It’s also how student loan eligibility is determined, as well as parent PLUS loan eligibility. (FAFSA) is also how work-study eligibility is determined.”

FAFSA can also help families plan for college by providing estimated costs of attendance for schools, as well as a number called an Expected Family Contribution, or what families can anticipate paying for college after federal grants and scholarships.

What do I need to fill out FAFSA?

Mostly just 30 minutes of time, Bell said, at least on average.

Families will need to supply various kinds of information, including demographics, Social Security numbers and financial details. Each student and parent will also need to create their own online Federal Student Aid ID to use with the online FAFSA application, as well as with StudentLoans.gov for any loans that result from the FAFSA application.

But even if families might not have readily available access to their financial information, such as federal tax returns, FAFSA in recent years implemented a data retrieval tool that pulls the details directly from the Internal Revenue Service.

To receive federal grant dollars, students will need to provide financial information from both parents, which can pose a problem for some students with one or both parents who are unable or refuse to provide that information. Those students may still qualify for some financial aid by filling out an incomplete FAFSA form, then contacting their colleges’ financial aid departments to work through the special circumstances.

Additionally, FAFSA’s online helper tool is able to answer most basic questions.

Why don’t students fill out FAFSA?

While there are various reasons why a student might not be able to fill out FAFSA, Bell said many of them come down to student and family misconceptions of what FAFSA entails. Those misconceptions include:

  • “We made too much money” — It’s true that students from families with high income might not qualify for federal grant money after completing FAFSA, but other funding sources could have different income caps or weightings. For example, the Kansas Promise Scholarship uses FAFSA applications to award scholarships to students who might not receive other financial aid, especially if they otherwise have too high household incomes, Bell said.
  • Uncertainty over post-high school plans — While FAFSA asks for students to name schools they think they may apply to or attend, Bell said that doesn’t commit a student to attending one of those schools. Students can name as many as 12 potential schools to receive their FAFSA information, and they can always apply elsewhere and have a new school review their submitted FAFSA application.
  • Financial commitment worries — these concerns come from both students and parents, Bell said, especially since FAFSA may return a high Expected Family Contribution. But this is just an estimate and does not take into account other scholarships or financial aid that may be awarded directly from colleges. Even then, parents are never put “on the hook” for paying any part of their students’ costs when filling out FAFSA, she said.
  • “I don’t have all the information yet” — Especially for students who fill out FAFSA early in the school year, the application is forgiving, Bell said, and information can always be corrected, amended or added in later in the school year.

The first F stands for Free.

courtney bell, college and career coordinator at wichita South high school

New to FAFSA this year is a change in eligibility requirements. Previously, men ages 18 to 25 were required to register for the Selective Service to receive any kind of financial aid, and college students who received drug-related convictions while also receiving federal aid were declared ineligible for further aid.

However, Congress removed those eligibility requirements starting this school year as part of the FAFSA Simplification Act. Questions about Selective Service registration and drug-related convictions are still on the application this cycle but no longer have any effect on actual eligibility and will gradually be phased out in the next few years, Bell said.

Is it ever too late to fill out FAFSA? 

Not at all, Bell said. The application window opens Oct. 1 each year, with Kansas colleges and universities generally setting Dec. 1 as the priority deadline for scholarship consideration.

That’s why other high school counselors and college and career coordinators like Bell push hard for students to complete FAFSA as soon as possible once the application opens.

Applying early “means you’re eligible for increased funding besides just the federal Pell Grant, so in Kansas, that might be the Kansas Comprehensive Grant or Supplemental Education Grant or university funding that’s limited,” Bell said. “So filling out your FAFSA early puts you in the pool for more money overall.”

But those colleges will still consider applications submitted after that deadline and distribute Pell Grant money late into the school year, even if students risk losing out on other scholarships or work-study opportunities.

Since FAFSA relies on the income tax information from two years prior — that is, 2020 tax returns for the 2022-23 school year — some families may find that their old tax returns do not accurately reflect their current financial situations. However, those families are encouraged to contact their colleges’ financial aid departments to explain the situation after filling out FAFSA, Bell said.

Where can I get FAFSA help?

In recent years, there has been a major push to help more students complete FAFSA, Bell said. High schools across the state regularly hold financial aid events where students and their parents can come get help filling out the application. 

The Kansas Board of Regents last year even began a statewide competition to recognize Kansas high schools with the highest FAFSA completion rates. Only 46.9% of Kansas high school graduates completed FAFSA last school year.

Families may pay for help in completing FAFSA, and some families might opt to use accountants to assist in sifting through complicated family financial matters.

But the most important thing to remember about FAFSA is that “the first F stands for Free,” Bell said. 

“Students and families really don’t have to pay anyone to fill out FAFSA, and with the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, it’ll input all your financial data for you,” Bell said. “There really isn’t any reason any more why families should have to pay for help completing FAFSA.”

High school counselors or college and career advisors are eager to help students schedule appointments to fill out the application. Additionally, college financial aid officers attend many high school FAFSA completion events and are more than happy to help any student fill out FAFSA, even if a student isn’t considering the college, Bell said.

“A student might see (the college representatives) at school and think, ‘I don’t want to ask them for help, because I may end up at a different school,’” Bell said. “But their goal is also to help any student complete FAFSA, and that’s why they volunteer their time to come out to schools’ completion events.”

Filling out FAFSA, then, doesn’t have to be “as scary as it seems,” Bell said.

Students “have human support at their schools and at their colleges, and even the FAFSA application tries to make it really easy on you, so don’t be afraid to get it done early,” she said.

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Garcia is an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon. He is a Report for America corps member.