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Parent's guide to the FAFSA and Federal Student Aid

This article is from Student Loan Hero

We are now in the thick of "FAFSA season," which kicks off each October. If you're the parent of a college student younger than 24, you'll likely need to complete at least part of their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

"Parents of dependent students play a vital role in our students' eligibility for financial aid," said Abril Hunt, an outreach manager for ECMC, a nonprofit focused on higher education finance.

If a parent fails or refuses to provide their information on the FAFSA, this could cut off the student from many forms of financial aid. To help you out, we spoke with college aid experts to get their best tips for parents filing the FAFSA. Here's what you need to know.

Why parents should always complete a FAFSA

The FAFSA is used to collect information about a student and their family's ability to pay for college. Under federal law, families are expected to take on the primary responsibility in paying for a student's college education. For dependent students (those younger than 24), that means they must provide information on their FAFSA about their parents or legal guardians.

Completing the parent portion of the FAFSA accurately and correctly is crucial to helping your child get help paying for college. Specifically, you'll share your parent demographic information and financial details.

"Dependent students are required to list their [parents'] info in order to determine the family's Expected Family Contribution (EFC)," said Holly Morrow, senior vice president of knowledge at college finance nonprofit uAspire. "This does not mean that the family must commit to paying for the student's college expenses, but rather the family's financial strength helps creates the EFC, which is an indicator of eligibility for federal and state grants."

Still, the form can be confusing for parents to navigate, and many think their child won't qualify for federal financial aid. Less than half (46%) of the parents with college-bound students said they completed the FAFSA, according to a survey from Discover Student Loans.

"Oftentimes, parents believe there is no point to completing the FAFSA," said Lindsay Muzzy, a FAFSA and student aid expert with college consulting service My College Planning Team. "It is important to complete it regardless of if the family believes it will be eligible for governmental aid."

That's because the FAFSA can open doors to all forms of financial help for students. The application is crucial to access federal student aid such as Pell Grants or federal student loans. The information provided on the FAFSA is also often used by colleges, state governments and private organizations to evaluate a student for other forms of need- or merit-based student aid.

This makes the FAFSA especially useful, since each student aid program has its own formula to determine a student's need for assistance, and aid offered can vary widely based on the cost of the college in which they choose to enroll.

Simply put, parents should always file a FAFSA because they never know what aid their child could qualify for — or wind up needing.

How to file a FAFSA as a parent

"As a parent, you can fill out and submit the full FAFSA on your child's behalf. There shouldn't be any steps that a parent couldn't complete," Muzzy said. Or you can just complete the sections for which you're responsible as a parent: your parent demographic information and financial information.

"It is best practice to have the student work with the parents on completion, as it will be required each school year," Muzzy said.

The process is fairly similar regardless of whether you're filling out the entire form or just the parent part. Here are the steps you can follow to file a FAFSA as a parent, as outlined by the Department of Education:

  1. Create Federal Student Aid (FSA) accounts. Both you and your child will need to sign up for FSA IDs, so you'll need your FAFSA parent login.
  2. Start a new FAFSA. Once you and your child have FSA accounts, you can start a new FAFSA and begin filling it out.
  3. Fill in your child's personal and educational information. The FAFSA will prompt you to enter general information for your child, as well as their dependency status and which schools they are considering (to direct where their FAFSA information should be shared).
  4. Provide your parent demographics and financial details. The FAFSA will ask you for your own identifying details, as well as marital status. You'll also need to provide financial information, such as your income as reported on your most recent tax return, and whether you receive federal benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Medicaid. You'll also be asked to list assets you own that could be used or leveraged to help pay for college, such as college savings accounts.
  5. Sign and submit the FAFSA. Once you've completed the form, review it to ensure that the information is accurate. You and your child will each sign the FAFSA and submit it.

Tips for parents filing a FAFSA

Many parents run into obstacles and confusing questions while helping their child complete the FAFSA. Here's what parents can do to make the process as clear and error-free as possible.

Discuss the FAFSA and college costs with your child

Hopefully you've already started discussing college with your child, including how your family plans to pay for college.

"Aligning on college costs and how much the family is willing to contribute should be a huge part of the college-list creation phase," Morrow said.

The process of filing a FAFSA and applying for colleges provides the opportunity to continue talking to your child about paying for a degree, as well as helping them to find money for college and choose affordable schools to apply to.

Understand if your child is a dependent on the FAFSA

For the FAFSA, students are considered dependents if they:

  • Are younger than 24 years
  • Are unmarried
  • Are completing a degree other than a master's or doctorate
  • Are not an active-duty military member or veteran
  • Do not have a child or dependent they support
  • Were not in foster care or a dependent of the state after age 13
  • Are not an emancipated minor or a homeless unaccompanied youth

A student who doesn't meet all these conditions is considered an independent student and can file a FAFSA without including their parents' information. But most young college students will fall under the criteria above and be considered dependent.

Parents should be aware, however, that dependency status on the FAFSA doesn't mean the same thing as it might in other areas, such as on tax returns.

"Dependency status is confusing to most of the families I work with, and it has no bearing to whether or not you are declared a dependent on someone else's taxes," Hunt said. You'll need to check IRS rules to determine whether you can list your child as a dependent on your taxes and claim valuable education tax credits.

For unmarried or separated parents, figure out who should file

"Divorce affects the FAFSA by only requiring one parent to supply their information," Muzzy said. "The student should select the parent with whom they live 51% or more of their time with." If custody was evenly split, the parent who provided more financial support to the child should be the one listed on the FAFSA.

"Another caveat that frustrates parents is if they have remarried," Hunt said. "In those cases, the parent of record will need to report income information for the stepparent on the FAFSA," as well as for themselves.

If you and your child's other parent are on good terms, it could be worthwhile to discuss this. The FAFSA4caster is a helpful way to project the financial aid your child could qualify for on each parent's income — be sure to include stepparents' incomes, too. You can review everyone's financial situation and see if your child is likely to qualify for more aid by living with one of you previous to filing a FAFSA.

File the FAFSA early

Students and their parents can file a FAFSA as early as Oct. 1 for the following school year, and you should work to submit it as soon as possible.

"It is imperative that families complete the FAFSA in a timely manner, as government and state aid can run out after a given amount of time," Muzzy said. Filing early will also ensure you get back financial aid award offers from colleges early, giving you and your student plenty of time to weigh your options and choose the best school for your budget.

Get your own information together before you start the FAFSA

It can be helpful to preview a full copy of the FAFSA before you begin filling out your own. This way, you'll get an idea for what kind of information and documents you will need to have on hand.

"Having all the required information gathered prior to sitting down to complete the FAFSA will be a big help," Morrow said.

For example, you'll want to have your most recent tax return ready, as well as access to bank accounts, savings accounts and other asset statements. The FAFSA provides an IRS Data Retrieval Tool that you can use to import the information from your most recently filed tax return.

Double-check your FAFSA for errors

Getting prepared to complete the FAFSA and taking your time when doing so are crucial to making sure you submit an error-free form.

Morrow noted some common FAFSA errors for which to watch out, such as "parents entering their info into the student's section, parents reporting untaxed benefits that are not required, incorrectly reporting assets, incorrectly reporting the number of people in the household, not using the IRS (Data Retrieval Tool), etc."

Read each section of the FAFSA to make sure that you understand it and that it's as accurate as possible. Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to minimize errors, and review the form before submitting.

If you make a mistake on the FAFSA, you'll have to go back and correct it, further delaying when your information can be processed and finalized. If you do receive notice that information on your child's FAFSA is incorrect, respond immediately and resubmit the form to minimize any setbacks.

Seek support for filing the FAFSA

There's no doubt that filling out a FAFSA can be a bit time-consuming and complicated, especially for parents who have never attended college or filed a FAFSA before. If you find yourself confused or stuck, seek out resources and people who can help.

"Parents and students should know that they can always reach out for help, either to their high school counseling department, college financial aid offices or to local college access organizations for support," Morrow said.

"It's a complicated process, and it is OK to ask for support in completing the FAFSA and other required follow-up steps in order to ensure that the student receives the financial aid they may be eligible for," she said.

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