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Gateway to student financial aid

Every student who is applying for financial aid should submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Here are the facts you need to help your students with this form.

What the FAFSA is

The FAFSA is a federal form that colleges use to determine a student's eligibility for federal aid. (The majority of the $227 billion in financial aid awarded each year is from federal funds.) The form is also used by many state and college financial aid programs. It is developed, distributed and processed by the U.S. Department of Education's office of Federal Student Aid (FSA).

When and how to file

Students can file the FAFSA beginning Jan. 1.

Assure families that it is acceptable to use estimated income and other estimated figures on the FAFSA, using pay stubs and other records to complete the document. They will be able to change information later.

The FAFSA can be filed electronically at the FSA website's FAFSA page. Urge students to file electronically. This method is fastest and has the advantage of online prompts to help families avoid mistakes. Paper and PDF applications are also available.

Students who plan to file online need a PIN — a personal identification number — before they can fill out the form. They should apply for a PIN in November or December at the Department of Education's PIN website.

To get paper copies of the FAFSA, call 800-394-7084 or visit the FSA publications website.

Help families complete the form

Providing families with expert advice and computers can go a long way toward ensuring that students correctly file this important form.

"Counselors should avoid giving advice on what to report on the form or not," says Laura Malmstrom, a counselor in Wilmington, Del. "I bring in financial aid officers from local colleges to help students complete the forms, so they are getting expert help."

Here are some ways to help families:

  • Provide copies of the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet (available in English and Spanish) to families so they can prepare their information in advance of filing the actual FAFSA.
  • Prepare a list of information and documents they should have handy, including:
    • Social security number
    • Federal income tax returns
    • W-2 forms
    • Current bank statements
    • Records of untaxed income (such as welfare benefits, Social Security or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)
    • Records of any stocks, bonds or other investments
  • Convene a panel discussion in the fall about financial aid with financial aid professionals from local colleges.
  • Host open lab nights with college financial aid professionals during January, when the FAFSA needs to be completed.

Information from the Office of Federal Student Aid

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Federal Student Aid sends an excellent booklet — the Counselors and Mentors Handbook on Federal Student Aid — to each school every year. This easy-to-use reference is aimed at counselors and explains federal aid, how it is awarded and the process of completing the FAFSA. It includes handouts that can be used at financial aid events and information on the many federal Web-based tools that can help you navigate the FAFSA. Call 800-394-7084 or go to the FSA publications website to request a copy.

Visit the Federal Student Aid Toolkit for more information and resources.