A college education is a major step forward for a young person---and a major expense. Many students need at least some financial help to pay for college, and that's where the FAFSA application (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) comes in. The FAFSA application is provided by the Federal Student Aid office of the Department of Education. This office administers financial aid to 11 million students totaling over $80 billion annually (as of 2008). The FAFSA application is the starting point for getting federal student aid.
There are several programs of grants, loans and work study administered by Federal Student Aid and each has specific eligibility requirements. The FAFSA application provides all the information needed to determine your eligibility for all of these programs. The application is processed and sent to the post-secondary institution you designate. The financial aid office at the school then determines what the type and amount of financial award you can receive.
There are three types of financial aid offered by the federal government: grants (which do not have to be paid back), loans (which must be repaid) and work study student jobs Grant programs are mainly for undergraduates, and include the Pell grant, Academic Competitiveness Grant and SMART (Science and Mathematics to Retain Talent) grants. In 2008, a new program, the TEACH (Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education) grants, was added. Loan programs include Stafford loans for students, PLUS loans for parents and Perkins loans. Work study positions are student jobs that provide the opportunity to earn money for expenses other than tuition, housing and fees.
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For Federal Student Aid, the award year begins on July 1st and ends on June 30th of the following year. The deadline for an application to be received and processed and an award determination made is midnight (Central time) on June 30th at the end of the award year (although corrections may be submitted until September 15th). For example, for the 2008/2009 award year, the deadline is June 30, 2009. However, state and individual schools have their own deadlines, and many are earlier. You should check with a particular institution's office of financial aid early (before the start of the award year) to find out their deadlines.
Gather the necessary information and documents before you fill out the FAFSA application. You will need your Social Security number, driver's license (if any) and alien registration or permanent visa if you aren't a US citizen. You will also need your W-2 form(s) and federal tax return for the previous year (and those of your parents if you are a dependent). Documentation of any untaxed income (such as Social Security, welfare and other benefits) is required. You must have current bank account statements and documentation of any stocks, bonds, business property and mortgages.
Some colleges don't participate in all of the federal programs, so check with the financial aid office. Many colleges and universities use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for other financial aid, including state-funded programs, so make sure you are considered for these as well. Finally, don't limit your search for financial aid to the federal government and the school of your choice. There are many corporations and nonprofit organizations that provide grants and scholarships. Ask your financial aid office how to find these sources of financial aid.