5 Financial Aid Tips for Parents (from a Parent)

Happy New (School) Year! The beginning of the school year is always an exciting time in our home. For my kids, it’s the anticipation of going back to school, making new friends, and the start of soccer! For my husband and me, it’s the joy of getting back to a routine.

This year is slightly different.  Our daughter, Sahana, started her senior year in high school.  Over the summer, we had fun visiting schools.  During school presentations, we learned about academics, clubs, and traditions.  The one thing we did not hear a lot about was the cost of each college and the financial aid options available.  Yes, they usually did say to fill out the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), but no one explained why we should fill out the FAFSA or the steps needed to secure financial aid.

As Sahana embarks on her journey to college this fall, we will also be focusing on how to pay for college.

As an employee at Federal Student Aid (FSA), I feel like I know a bit more about the federal financial aid process than the average parent does.  Nevertheless, even after working at FSA for five years, it is such a different experience when you’re the one going through the FAFSA process for the first time.  As I was creating a checklist for us, I thought it would be helpful to share it with other parents going through the same journey. 

First let me explain what the FAFSA is and why it is important for you and your child to fill it out.  The FAFSA is the form that most colleges and states require in order for your child to be considered for financial aid.  Based on the information you and your child provide on the FAFSA, a college will determine your child’s financial aid package, which could include college, state, and federal aid in the form of grants, loans, work-study funds, and school scholarships.   Also, many private scholarship organizations require a copy of your FAFSA.

Here it goes!  Just a few simple steps to start the financial aid piece of the college application process!

Step 1: Research and Compare College Costs

What goes into determining the actual cost of college can be confusing and overwhelming.  Any college that participates in the federal student aid program is required to provide information on its cost of attendance and to offer a net price calculator on its website. This calculator will give you an idea of how much a program may cost after subtracting any financial aid. The average net price to attend the college is determined by subtracting the average amount of federal, state/local government, or institutional grant or scholarship aid from the total cost of attending the college’s largest program.

You can look up the cost and assess the value of colleges using the College Scorecard.

If you’re not ready to apply for federal student aid, but you’d like to estimate your aid, try  FAFSA4caster,  a free financial aid calculator that gives you an early estimate of your eligibility for federal student aid. This information helps families plan ahead for college.

Step 2:  Get Your FSA ID

An FSA ID is a username and password you need to log in to and sign the FAFSA online. You AND your child will each need your own FSA ID.  If you don’t have an FSA ID, get one here ASAP. It takes about 10 minutes to create an FSA ID (I timed it when we did ours!). Getting it early it will save you time when you fill out the FAFSA.

If you are creating and FSA ID for the first time, you’ll be able to use your FSA ID right away to sign and submit your FAFSA online. If this is not your first time filling out the FAFSA, you’ll need to wait 1–3 days before you can use your new FSA ID (there’s an account verification process).

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Step 3: Fill Out the FAFSA  

After you get your FSA ID, go to fafsa.gov to fill out the FAFSA.  For step-by-step directions, read 8 Steps to Filing Out the FAFSA.  Here are a couple of tips for you, the parent:

  • The FAFSA is much easier to fill out if you let your child start the FAFSA by logging in with his/her FSA ID. That way, a lot of his/her info will be populated for you.
  • Remember the FAFSA is your child’s application, so when it says “you” or “your”, it’s referring to the student.  When the FAFSA needs your (the parent’s) information, it will specifically say parent.
  • The FAFSA asks for your child to list all the schools he/she is applying to.  Make sure to list all the schools your child is considering, even the ones that are on the maybe list.  This will ensure all the schools receive the completed FAFSA and hold your child’s place in line for aid should he/she apply and get accepted.
  • Many schools and states have limited financial aid; you and your child should fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible.  It’s available now and can be submitted before you child has completed his/her admissions application to the school.

Step 4: Review Your Child’s SAR (Student Aid Report)

Within three days after you and your child submit the FAFSA online, your child will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) via email. This document is a summary of your child’s FAFSA. You should review the SAR to ensure all the information is accurate. The SAR will also include an Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is a number used to calculate how much financial aid your child is eligible to receive based on the information provided on the FAFSA.

If you believe the information you provided on the FAFSA may not reflect your current family and financial situation, contact the college’s financial aid office to ask them for help. The college’s financial aid office may be able to take the additional information into account when determining your child’s financial aid award. (You will need to contact the financial aid office at each school to which your child is applying for admission.)

Step 5: Research Scholarships

Take some time to help your child find scholarship opportunities. You can also use the U.S. Department of Labor’s FREE scholarship search tool. Remember, some scholarship programs may have  deadlines that are earlier than the state or college deadline, so submit your FAFSA as soon as possible.

Good luck with the college application and financial aid process!

Vandna Wendy Bhagat is the Director of Awareness and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid. She is also the mom of a high school senior and freshman. Wendy is just starting to navigate the college process with her daughter.


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