Parents of high school seniors across the country have been seeing numerous FAFSA announcements, and many parents with a student going through the college application process for the first time are wondering exactly what this even means. Just like the college application process has become more involved, so has the process for finding financial aid to help with the skyrocketing cost. Yesterday, a parent asked me if they filled out the FAFSA to receive the Florida Bright Futures award. This is a reasonable question, but illustrates the lack of information being given to parents to understand the basics of these programs:
The FAFSA is a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The application is available on October 1st and remains open to submit for a full 21 months. However, each state and many individual schools have their own deadlines. It is advantageous for families to complete the FAFSA as soon as it opens. US News & World Report breaks down a simple explanation of the FAFSA and also current individual state deadlines.
To fill out the FAFSA, parents need to visit the Department of Education’s site: DOE create FAFSA. It is a lengthy, but straightforward process; it does take some time to complete, and accuracy is essential. Of the many FAFSA mistakes one could make when completing the application, one of the most common is using the wrong tax year information. In 2017, the Department of Education began releasing the application earlier and requiring the prior year’s tax data. Before 2017, the application was released January 1st, and many families hustled to get their tax information completed for the application cycle. The earlier release date takes away that stress, but it does add a little confusion as to exactly which financials parents should report. Luckily, there now is also an IRS retrieval tool that enables parents to link the correct tax data directly to their application.
The FAFSA information provided is used to determine student loan amounts as well as eligibility for work-study programs and federal grants. The federal student loans have very low interest rates, and federal grants are “gift awards” that do not have to be repaid. Students who qualify for work-study programs can be building a resume while taking down their college cost.
The Bright Futures Scholarship Program is a Florida specific program to provide different types of educational funding options for qualified students. Florida high school guidance counselors play a large role in helping the students with the Bright Futures process. There are three Bright Futures scholarship programs each with their own eligibility requirements and award amounts: FAS (Florida Academic Scholars), FMS (Florida Merit Scholars), and GSV (Gold Seal Vocational Scholars). The FAS scholarship is the most competitive requiring a minimum GPA 3.5, ACT 29, SAT 1290 and at least 100 service hours. There is also required coursework included in these minimums. Full eligibility requirements for all three programs can be found in this downloadable Bright Futures Handbook.
GRANTS AND SCHOLARSHIPS
Grants and scholarships are referred to as “gift awards” as they do not have to be re-paid. Grants are usually need-based whereas scholarships are typically merit-based. Many universities have school specific scholarships for both in-state and out-of-state students. When researching schools, students and parents should always check the school’s published information about available scholarship opportunities and requirements.
Students can also conduct a broad scholarship search directly through their College Board account: College Board scholarship search. Just like the application process itself, sifting through all the possibilities of financial help with college cost is the most productive when it is broken down into steps. The first step in this process is completing the FAFSA.