An image of money raining down on a college building. The FAFSA provides financial aid to college students every year. Illustration by Alyson Sutherland

Applying for college can be daunting on its own, and even if accepted, students have trouble affording it. That’s why financial assistance is essential for most in college. 

FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, provides approximately $120 billion in grant, work-study, and loan funds each year to help pay for college or career school, according to the Federal Student Aid Office. FAFSA is a branch of the U.S. Department of Education and is the largest supplier of student financial aid in the country. 

This financial aid program was first created by President Lyndon B. Johnson under the Higher Education Act of 1965. The FAFSA department processes over 17.6 million forms per year, according to the Federal Student Aid Office. Students need to fill out the form every year that they are in school, not just when applying for college. When applying, students will always fill out the form for the next school year. Students applying for the FAFSA this year will fill out the 2023-2024 school year application.

The FAFSA helps give students an idea of how much their family is expected to contribute towards paying for college. After completing the form, you will be able to see your Student Aid Report (SAR). That will let you know your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) which is not a binding number and still allows you to apply for many grants, scholarships, and loans. 

You will also be able to see if you qualify for a Pell Grant on your SAR. The Pell Grant is only given out through the FAFSA and maxes out at $6,895 per year. Some schools will provide full ride scholarships to students who are Pell Grant eligible, like Bay Path University, Antioch College, and Portland State University. 

The State of Oregon recommends on the FAFSA website that students fill out the form as soon as possible after Oct. 1 because financial awards are made on a first-come, first-serve basis, until funds have been depleted from the Oregon Opportunity Grant. 

A grant is money that is given and does not need to be repaid. Along with the Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) and Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) are other federal grants. 

A scholarship is free money for college that students have to apply for. Schools can’t consider you for scholarships until after you’ve filled out the FAFSA, which is why it’s important to complete the form before applying to any colleges if you want financial assistance. Make sure to apply for scholarships both through schools that you are applying to and through independent organizations to maximize your chances of being awarded them. Colleges will also only give out a financial offer after students complete the FAFSA. In many cases, they can end up providing additional aid that FAFSA will not. 

Work Study is another number that might show up on your EFC, and that means you qualify for a job while in college to help pay for school. 

Additional aid is also available for military, minorities, low-income families, and international students.

Finally, loans are another way to pay for college. There are two types of loans, federal and private. Federal loans are through the government; and private loans are through a bank, credit union, state agency, or school. Loans are money that must be paid back with interest. 

Since 1980, the cost of colleges has nearly tripled, and Federal Aid has not kept up. A Pell Grant that used to cover almost 80% of a college tuition only covers about a third now due to inflation, but the grant number hasn’t changed, even though the numbers have risen. The most important things to remember about the FAFSA are to read all instructions and questions carefully; meet the FAFSA deadlines; and check your emails, including spam, regularly for any messages from Federal Student Aid or your school.

 The FAFSA takes about an hour to fill out. The form can be accessed online, which is a much quicker process, but you can also print and mail it to the FSA department. 

It is possible to fill out the form in multiple logins, but you must create and use a save key to reopen the next time. 

The FAFSA offers the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to make the form easier to navigate for students. The software will automatically retrieve all relevant tax information from your parents’ taxes and add it to the form. To complete the FAFSA, you will need your parents’ W2 tax forms as well as their 2021 income taxes. If you (the student) made significant money, you will need to report that too. If any of the information on their taxes has changed, you can go to the “Filling Out the FAFSA Form” section of the FAFSA website for more assistance. 

You will also need to know your parents’ social security numbers as well as your own. If you don’t live with your parents, fill out the FAFSA form and immediately contact the school you are applying to and ask about their financial plans. You will need to gather bank statements, records of investments, and retirement accounts. Block a few days out of your FAFSA timeline before filling it out to create a FSA ID. An FSA ID is needed to login into the FAFSA form, and takes a few days to confirm your information with the IRS. 

Out of last year’s graduating class at Franklin, only about 65-69% completed the FAFSA over the span of 15 months. That’s lower than the PPS district FAFSA completion figure, which was 75-79%, according to the FSA department. As of Oct. 14, only 89 students at Franklin have completed the 2023-24 FAFSA. 

Franklin offers free assistance to all students and families through the entire process. Help can be found in the College and Career Center near the counseling office every Thursday from 1-2 pm (1:30-2:30 on tutorial days). 

Students can also ask for help from Regina Stanton, Franklin’s college coordinator. She helps students with a wide range of issues including finding a good college fit, reading over essays, researching schools, applying for scholarships and much more. She stresses the importance of the FAFSA, even for students who aren’t sure they want to go to a traditional college. “Maybe you want to do a trade. Some of those trades are offered through community colleges,” Stanton says. The FAFSA opens up more opportunities including the Oregon Promise, which will pay for two years of community college for Pell Grant-eligible Oregonian students. Stanton says she likes to bring in first-generation college students and their families before completing the FAFSA to keep them involved in the process, adding that “We’ve even got relationships with a number of our local colleges so we’re able to get some of their financial aid people to come in as well and help support that.” 

If you or your parents are undocumented, you can fill out the Oregon Student Aid Application (ORSAA), which is similar to the FAFSA, but it is a confidential application used solely for students who don’t qualify to fill out the FAFSA. It finds Oregon students non-federal financial aid for colleges in Oregon. You can also access the Oregon Promise through this form. 

Throughout the process, it is important to take care of yourself to avoid burnout. Oliver River-Satalich, a recent Franklin graduate, expresses the importance of mental health. “[Allow] yourself time to relax. [Applying] to schools and filling out the [FAFSA] is extremely draining administrative work, and anyone who does it should be proud of themselves. [Acknowledge] your hard work, know your worth, and treat yourself. [You] deserve it.” 

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