Applying for Student Aid

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(This article appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)

Joyce B. Robinson, Research & Education Department Director

Through Federal Student Aid, an office of the U.S. Department of Education, eligible students and their families can help fund post-secondary education via FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The FAFSA is used to apply for aid in the form of grants and loans, and through work-study programs. The FAFSA is used by most state schools and many private institutions. It can be completed online or on paper (and mailed); it’s available in both English and Spanish.

Avoiding Delay

To most efficiently complete the FAFSA process:

  • Read the Instructions Carefully — Many questions are very specific: Common words like “household,” “investments,” and even “parent” may have special meaning. Treat each question separately, and answer each one.
  • Apply Early — The FAFSAs for the 2008-2009 school year have been accepted since July 1, 2008; the deadline to submit the application is June 30, 2009.
  • Provide the Requested Documentation — The FAFSA requires records of income earned in the year prior to when you will start school. For the 2008-2009 school year, you will need financial information from 2007.
  • Complete Your Tax Return — You (and your parents if you are a dependent student) must complete this year’s tax return before filling out the FAFSA. If you have not filed your tax return yet, you can still submit your FAFSA — but you must provide the correct tax data as soon as you file with the IRS.
  • Fill Out the Correct Forms — Many schools and states rely on the FAFSA as the single application for student aid. To learn whether additional forms are needed, check with the financial aid office at the school you plan to attend.
  • Be Honest, Be Accurate — If you get federal student aid based on incorrect information, you will have to pay it back, with fines and fees attached. If you purposely give false or misleading information on your application, you can be fined up to $20,000 and be sent to prison.

Backup Documentation

You may find it handy to build a FAFSA folder containing copies of: your Social Security card; a driver’s license or another form of identification; W-2 Forms and other records of money earned; all relevant recent tax returns — yours, spouse’s, parents; Veterans Administration benefits records; recent bank statements; business and investment mortgage information; and — if the applicant is not a U.S. citizen, the alien registration or permanent resident card.

Expected Family Contribution

The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is a preliminary estimate that measures your family’s finances. To determine eligibility for federal student aid, the EFC is factored into the “Cost of Attendance” at the school you plan to attend.

After submission of the FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR lists all the information you reported on your FAFSA, and in the upper right of the front page, is your “EFC.” Schools use the EFC figure to prepare a financial aid package (grants, loans, and/or work-study).

Your ultimate “financial need” is the difference between your EFC and your school’s cost of attendance, which can include living expenses.

For Further Information

The financial aid office at the school you plan to attend is the best place to get information about federal, state, school, and other sources of student financial aid.

Warning: Be wary of organizations that charge a fee to help you submit your application, or that say they will help you find money for school. Likely as not these are scams, offering to help you do something that you can easily get done for free. For help completing the FAFSA application, visit the Department of Education Web site at

More free advice is available through the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 800-433-3243, or your local library’s reference section.

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