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How the FAFSA Works

The Foundation of Financial Aid for Higher Education

Your oldest child is a senior in high school and planning to attend college. There’s a lot of talk about college applications, but what’s the deal regarding the financial aid process? And folks are talking about something called the FAFSA that you haven’t got a clue about. Where do you go next? 

When Courtney, a 21-year-old from Chesterfield County, originally saw “FAFSA” in print, her first thought was, How do you pronounce it? “After learning that FAFSA was an acronym for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, I was immediately interested,” says Courtney. “I was a student who wanted to go to college, and I definitely was in need of money.”

Completing the FAFSA is the first step in the financial aid process for students interested in qualifying for financial aid (i.e., grants, scholarships, Federal Work-Study, and loans) through the colleges to which they apply and are accepted. The FAFSA requires information (things like family size, family income, student income, and parent age) in an online application. Based on that information, a formula is applied to determine a student’s expected family contribution (EFC) for education. Completing the FAFSA in no way requires a family to pay for the student’s education; however, it provides colleges with an EFC figure which is then used to compute the financial aid a student may receive at each college the student designates on the FAFSA.

 “All through high school, students are thinking about where they want to go if they decide to continue their education,” says Courtney. “Senior year is when students start applying to these colleges and considering how they will afford college. My high school had a session where they passed out information about the FAFSA.” 

For students who complete the FAFSA and are accepted at the colleges they designate on the FAFSA, the college’s financial aid office uses this formula to determine the student’s financial need: cost of attendance minus the student’s EFC from the FAFSA. The college then determines which combination of its resources can be provided to the student to attend that college. Resources can include grants (Federal Pell Grant, state grants, other grants), scholarships (i.e., from the school or outside scholarships), Federal Work-Study (students work at the college and use that income for college expenses), and loans (these are federal student loans which may be subsidized and/or unsubsidized, as determined by the college’s financial aid office). Grants and scholarships are free money and don’t have to be repaid. Loans must be repaid. Any student who successfully completes the FAFSA is eligible for Federal Student Loans. Students do not have to accept the loans offered in any college’s financial aid package.  

According to Federal Student Aid, Federal Pell Grants usually are awarded only to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need and have not earned a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree. Federal Pell Grant authorizations can change from year to year. For example, for the 2019-2020 academic year, a student with an EFC of 0 could be eligible for the maximum Pell Grant of $6,195. That grant amount would be authorized to that student at each school at which he or she is accepted to attend on a full-time basis.

Courtney chose to attend a community college for her initial education after high school. “I am truly blessed to be able to say that by filling out the FAFSA, my first two years of college were completely paid for through the [Pell] grant I received,” she says. “Completing the FAFSA meant I could get an education without the stress of worrying about money.”

Not all students are eligible for all types of financial aid. Each student’s financial aid package is unique to that student based on his or her EFC. Additionally, a student may see a variety of financial aid packages if they apply to and are accepted at multiple schools, as each school has both federal and institutional resources which they use when packaging financial aid for students. Financial aid packages do not necessarily cover a student’s entire financial need. Whether a student’s financial need or EFC is covered varies broadly by college, and you can get access to this information by checking with the college’s financial aid office. Students and families may need to consider other resources to cover their college costs (i.e., savings/checking funds, payment plan at the college, private loans).

The bottom line is that it is important to complete the FAFSA because until you do, you do not know what financial aid a college – public, private, or community – may be able to offer a student. 

The FAFSA can be found at the Federal Student Aid website: Basic eligibility includes being a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen. High school seniors planning to attend college in the fall of 2020 can begin completing the FAFSA on October 1, 2019. Each college or university has a priority filing date by which students should have the FAFSA completed. This date is on the financial aid page of each school’s website, or you can call the school’s financial aid office. 

If you want to attend a college in the fall, complete the FAFSA as soon as you can after October 1, 2019. Do not wait until you know where you are going to school to complete the FAFSA. Many students require information from a parent or guardian to fill out the FAFSA. In most cases, the earlier you complete the FAFSA, the better the outcome regarding your financial aid package. Families with students who are not yet seniors can get a FAFSA estimate by completing the FAFSA Forecaster, also at 

Paula Buckley is the director of outreach and public affairs for GRASP (Great Aspirations Scholarship Program), a nonprofit organization that assists Richmond-area students and families in obtaining funding for post-secondary education. She is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and lives with her family in Henrico County.
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