For college-bound students, there may be no more important application than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — a form that needs to be filed every year that the student is enrolled in school.
"The whole point of filing the form is to determine how much does the federal government believe this family can afford to contribute toward this child's education," says Michael Turner of the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation.
Once they file, each family is assigned a magic number called the EFC or expected family contribution. What the family can contribute will determine how much aid they can receive.
"Such as the Federal Pell Grant, which is free money that comes from the federal government. If the family's contribution, that magic number, exceeds $4,995, they can't receive any Pell Grants, but those above it can still benefit from using the student loan programs and also financial aid that's offered through the college," says Turner.
In other words, the FAFSA form is the gateway to every type of financial aid available.
"Even if you just want to get non-need based students loans, such as the unsubsidized Stafford Loan for the student, or the parent wants to take out the Parents Loan for Undergraduate Students, otherwise known as the PLUS Loan," says President Kalman Chany of Campus Consultants Inc.
The form can be a daunting one, but help is available. Turner regularly walks families through the process, which he says does not have to be a lengthy one.
"We take on an average 20 or 30 minutes. Sometimes it may be faster because the simpler their income situation, the simpler the form is going to be," says Turner.
That is, provided that the family fills out the FAFSA online. While the paper form requires applicants to answer all 102 questions, the online form streamlines as it goes, skipping questions that are not relevant.
"So if you indicate that you have low income, for example, it's not going to ask that family to put in information about what's in their bank accounts and investments and if they're business owners. It will just bypass that whole section," says Turner.
A word of caution when filling out the form online: steer clear of sites that charge a fee to file what is a free application. One doesn't need a college degree to know that that's not necessary.
The official, free form can be found at www.fafsa.ed.gov.