I remember it like yesterday, and working in the college readiness field, I think about it all the time. I was obsessed with my college search. In 10th grade my best friend and I would spend hours reading the big fat Peterson’s Guide instead of going to parties. We knew the ins and out of each college in the Midwest and beyond. We knew their rankings, their teams, and every major offered. And although I had a long list of colleges I wanted to apply to, I only ended up applying to one. An affordable one.
Back before the time of online college searches, college coaches, and the college and career readiness obsession, cost was one of only a few parameters students used in their college search. And as a first-generation college student, my parents had no idea the resources available to pay for college. All we saw was a price tag. And we also knew that because my parents “made too much money but not enough,” we assumed that financial aid was completely out of the question. So I went the safe way. I chose to attend a large public university when a private one would’ve probably better met my needs. I completed the FAFSA but didn’t receive any federal aid. I transferred colleges after my first year and ended up finding my passion while in graduate school, but I often wonder where I would be now if I hadn’t based my college search mostly on financials.
As I complete my doctoral research on college readiness and the struggles that first-generation college students face, I find that the misconceptions still exist. It’s amazing how many doors can be opened by just completing one simple (really!) form. The FAFSA in its current form has existed for just over 30 years, and completion of the FAFSA is a predictor of college attendance.
If you’re new to the world of federal aid, Bryan Karl, Director of Admissions at the College of St. Scholastica describes it best. “Think of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as a standard form that collects demographic and financial information about the student and family. The FAFSA determines what is known as the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is an index number that schools use to determine your eligibility and is not the amount of money that you have to pay.“ So why should every student, no matter their family income or personal situation, complete the FAFSA? Here’s why:
Don’t assume anything. There are calculators and prediction tools for the FAFSA, but you never really know what aid you are going to get until you actually complete the form and hear back from your institution. Even if you aren’t awarded interest-free loans or federal grants, unsubsidized loans (loans that begin accruing interest immediately) typically have a low interest rate and can be great for building credit for students. It’s worth a try, and worth not making a decision on a best-fit college based on cost until you receive all of the numbers.
FAFSA can qualify you for institutional scholarships. Many private colleges and even some public institutions offer scholarships based on various requirements, including grades, involvement, and other accomplishments. However sometimes only students who complete a FAFSA are considered for these awards as the FAFSA is used as a qualification tool. Ian Pannkuk, DIrector of Marketing and Operations for the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Office of Admissions, mentions that the University of Minnesota’s U Promise scholarship is awarded to families with an income of up to $120,000, but a FAFSA must be completed. Ian also points out that any student seeking work study also needs to have a FAFSA on file to access these jobs.
Stuff happens. While nobody wants to anticipate a life-changing event, things happen. Jobs are lost, accidents happen, and financial forecasts can be off. By completing the FAFSA, even students who plan not to take out any loans can have access to funding in an emergency situation. Hope for the best, plan for the worst!
So pull out your tax returns from last year, make some hot chocolate, invite your senior to sit down next to you, and go through the process of completing the FAFSA. It just may end up changing your student’s college experience!