FAFSA 101: Getting it Done Quickly and Correctly
So, You Need Money for School?
If you’ve been at Northeastern for a while, you might have heard the rumor that if the MBTA Green Line hits you as you cross Huntington Avenue, you get your remaining tuition fully paid for by the city.
Now, I’m not here to crush your debt-free dreams, but there’s definitely a less dangerous way to get some help paying for school that you should try first: the FAFSA.
What is the FAFSA?
FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. In case that wasn’t clear, it’s free, so you have absolutely nothing to lose by filling it out. Make sure you’re going directly to the official FAFSA website; if the application is trying to charge you to file it, you’re on the wrong website!
Who can and should apply?
Anyone who is eligible to apply for financial aid is encouraged to do so. Submitting the FAFSA is the first step if you’d like to be considered for federal, state, or institutional forms of financial aid. This aid could include Federal Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized Loans, also known as Stafford Loans, as well as state grants or the Northeastern grant, depending on your eligibility.
*It’s good to file the FAFSA, even if you don’t think you need to, for a few reasons:
- In case your family’s financial situation changes, your counselor will have a record of your previous and current financial situation to go off of when considering updates to your financial aid package.
- You might be eligible for aid and not even realize it! There is no income cut-off to qualify for federal student aid. Many factors, such as the size of your family and your year in school, are taken into account. You also will not be considered for institutional funding, such as the Northeastern Grant, if you do not file the FAFSA.
- If you are awarded a Northeastern Grant your freshman year, it will not be renewed unless you complete the FAFSA each year.
Who is eligible for aid?
To qualify for federal financial aid, you must meet all of the requirements below:
- Be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen (permanent US residents, namely those with greencards)
- Have a high-school degree or the equivalent
- Be enrolled at least half-time in an eligible degree program
- Have a social security number
For a full list of eligibility requirements, see the FAFSA eligibility page.
How will my aid be calculated?
The reality of the FAFSA is that it’s a pretty straight-forward application; the upside being that it’s pretty quick and easy to fill out. The downside is that there’s not too much room to elaborate on your financial situation.
However, knowing how your aid is calculated will ensure that you’re filling the application out correctly the first time. This will prevent delays in processing your financial aid package- delays that could make you lose out big time.
The most important factor in determining how much aid you’re eligible for is your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This is “a measure of your family’s financial strength and is calculated according to a formula established by law”. This formula takes into account your family’s taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits (things like unemployment and social security), the size of your family and the number of family members who will be attending college that year.
Now like I mentioned earlier, getting your application right the first time can make a pretty significant difference in the amount of aid you can receive. Luckily, The Department of Education created the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to minimize errors and make your life easier. This pulls your tax information directly from the IRS database rather than having you enter it manually.
A common mistake when completing the FAFSA is not listing work study and co-op earnings in the designated field. Since Northeastern students have the potential to make more money than the average college student while on co-op, there is the concern that these earnings could be held against you when being considered for aid. We’re here to debunk that rumor. When completed correctly, work study and co-op earnings are actually disregarded in the FAFSA equation, which is good news for Huskies!
When filing their taxes, students also tend to leave their work study earnings out of their taxable income. If the financial aid counselor reviewing your application sees this, they’ll likely need you to refile your taxes with the IRS and then submit additional documentation to the school once they have been reprocessed. Incidents like this are why it’s also important to check your email and Northeastern portal for important document requests from your counselor throughout the year.
Getting the aid you need
It’s important to note that some forms of federal aid are limited, including federal work-study. So it’s key for undergraduate students to apply by the April 1st priority deadline to make sure you get the best package possible. In fact, it’s best to play it safe and submit your FAFSA 4-5 days prior to the deadline. This is because before your application is sent to your school’s financial aid office, it has to be processed by the US Department of Education. By submitting it a couple days early, you’re giving the administrative process some buffer time to make sure it gets to your school by the deadline. For returning undergraduate students, this deadline is April 1st.
Northeastern is unique in its approach to helping undergraduate day students pay for school with a supportive aid evaluation process for its students. These are all laid out in the Northeastern Promise, but I’m going to highlight my two favorite points here:
- Northeastern University need-based grants will increase annually at the same rate as tuition increase
- If your family experiences a negative change in financial circumstances that impacts your ability to pay for school, Northeastern will reevaluate your aid package and “make available all financial resources for which you qualify”
You aren’t in this alone!
Remember that no matter how daunting tuition, loans or the FAFSA may seem, you have a lot of resources at your disposal. First and foremost, check the Northeastern Student Financial Services website to determine who your counselor is. This way, if any questions or issues arise you will know who to contact for help. You can also stop by SFS during their walk-in hours.
And finally, do future you a favor and create a FAFSA folder! This should include your login information as well as documents that have the information you need to fill out the FAFSA each year. Whether this folder is digital or physical, it will contain some sensitive information so be careful where you keep it. Make sure to include your:
- FSA ID
- W-2 forms
- Parent’s information (social security numbers, date of birth, account info)
- Fill out the FAFSA! it’s free, it’s required in order to receive aid from the government or your school, and it’s a good record of your family’s financial situation in case anything changes down the line
- Filling out the FAFSA and your tax documents correctly and on time can make a big difference in the financial aid package you receive
- You’re not in this alone! Reach out to your financial aid counselor if you have questions or concerns