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Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter

Submitting your FAFSA to find out your eligibility for federal and state aid is definitely a huge step in the financial aid process, but it’s only the first step. After your FAFSA has been processed and you’ve visited with the financial aid office at your school(s) of interest, watch for an Award Letter from one or more of those institutions. The letter may be sent electronically or via the US Postal service. It’s important that you read each Award Letter carefully, for it describes the types and amounts of financial aid the college or career tech can offer to help you pay for one year of higher education.

On your award letter you will see:

  • The total Cost of Attendance (COA) – what it costs to go to that school for one year
  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC) – a number used by the school to determine how much financial aid you’re eligible to receive (most likely not the amount you’ll be expected to pay)
  • Types and amounts of aid the school can offer you; this list is often called a financial aid ‘package’.
    • Grants – gift aid that comes from federal, state and tribal governments, usually based on financial need
    • Scholarships – can be based on need, merit or your interests; awarded by colleges, state agencies, companies, foundations, tribal and private organizations
    • Federal work-study – there may be an opportunity for you to work on or off campus to earn some of your financial aid
    • Federal student loans – money that you borrow to help you pay for college; loans must be repaid, with interest
    • Federal PLUS loan – an undergraduate loan your parent(s) may qualify to borrow to help you pay for college, subject to credit history requirements; your parent(s) are expected to repay the loan

Now, do a simple calculation. Subtract all of the financial aid shown on your Award Letter from your Cost of Attendance. This will determine your estimated Net Cost. The Net Cost is the out-of-pocket amount you’ll be expected to pay. You may hear this referred to as unmet need, or ‘the gap’. It’s possible that your Net Cost could be zero if your financial aid package covers your whole Cost of Attendance (a negative amount would count as a zero).

What options are available to help you pay the Net Cost?

Remember:

  • You don’t have to accept all of the aid offered to you, especially when it comes to borrowing student loans. A monthly payment during college may be less expensive than a loan payment with added interest after you’ve completed your education.
  • Each award letter will give you a deadline to accept or decline some or all of the aid by a specified date. Always keep track of deadlines.
  • If you receive more than one Award Letter, be sure to determine what your Net Cost would be at each school. The schools will most likely have different packages to offer.

FAFSA Acronyms: Decoding Your FAFSA

Some of the language of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) may be unfamiliar to you. There are plenty of FAFSA acronyms you may not recognize. To help you decode FAFSA language, here are a few acronyms to familiarize yourself with as you go through the college financial aid process.

  • COA – Cost of Attendance (COA) is an estimate of the educational expenses for a particular college or university. The amount includes tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, and miscellaneous expenses. Every school will have a different COA, but schools will list their COA on the award letters they send to students.
  • DRN – A Data Release Number (DRN) is a number that is assigned to your FAFSA. The DRN will help financial aid officers and customer service representatives locate your application and make changes, if necessary. You can find your DRN in the upper right hand corner of your Student Aid Report (SAR) or on your FAFSA confirmation page.
  • DRT – The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) is a part of the Financial Information section of the FAFSA form. It allows you to transfer your tax return figures from IRS.gov onto your FAFSA application. Instead of manually entering tax data on the form, use the DRT to automatically enter the information. The tool connects to IRS.gov and locates the correct tax return. Once you click the “transfer now” button, the IRS will transfer your information into FAFSA.gov. Questions that have been answered by the DRT will populate with this response: “Transferred from the IRS.”
  • EFC – An Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is a number that’s used by financial aid offices to determine your federal student aid eligibility. All the information you report on the FAFSA helps calculate your EFC. The EFC is not the amount you’ll have to pay for school or how much aid you’ll receive. It’s a number that helps financial aid offices calculate your financial aid package.
  • FSA ID – A Federal Student Aid Identification (FSA ID) is your username and password for filling out the FAFSA. It also serves as your electronic signature on the application. This ID allows you to return to the application at a later date, utilize the Data Retrieval Tool and access your financial aid history. The student and one parent will need an FSA ID.
  • SAR – A Student Aid Report (SAR) is a form that you’ll receive after you’ve submitted your FAFSA. It’s a summary of all the information you entered on the application and a general overview of your federal student aid eligibility. You may receive a paper or electronic version of your SAR. You can always access it by logging into FAFSA.gov with your FSA ID. It will also report your EFC.

What is Verification?

After completing your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you will receive an email with a link to your Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR is a document that recaps the data you provided on the FAFSA and offers some basic information about your eligibility for federal financial aid. On this SAR, you may read that you’ve been selected for verification. Typically an asterisk appears next to the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) number near the upper right corner on the SAR, which indicates your information must be verified.

Verification is a process in which the school’s financial aid office must confirm the information provided on your FAFSA is accurate. About one-third of all students are selected for verification because questions may have been left blank, the data provided is inconsistent, or they’re just randomly chosen. If this happens, don’t worry. The financial aid office at the schools you’ve applied to will contact you and request additional documentation they’ll need to complete the verification process. Be sure to respond promptly and meet all deadlines set by financial aid personnel.

After you submit the requested materials to your school’s aid office, follow up with them to ensure it’s been received. Remember, you must complete the verification process in order to receive any federal or state student aid. If you have questions about the process, contact your school’s financial aid office.

 

IRS Data Retrieval Tool Outage

Please be advised that the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) will be unavailable Saturday, Jan. 12, from 5:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Central Standard Time. The DRT is used for transferring student and parent tax information from the IRS to the FAFSA application. During this outage, users may still access and complete the FAFSA. However, if any action requires entry of federal tax information, it must be provided manually. Applicants may wish to complete the FAFSA after the outage is over.

What to Expect with the New IRS Form 1040

Have you heard? There’s a new 1040 form coming, and it will be available for the 2018 tax year. Here’s a brief summary of the changes to the form.

  • The new 1040 replaces the current form, as well as form 1040-A and 1040-EZ. All taxpayers will now be using the same form.
  • The new form contains 23 lines; the 1040 for tax year 2017 contained 79 lines.
  • More schedules/forms will now be available. According to the IRS (Internal Revenue Service), they used a ‘building block approach’ when drafting these changes. All filers will now use the new 1040, and those with more than the basic details to report will attach one or more schedules or forms to their return.
  • At least six new schedules will be available, numbered one through six. Do you remember schedules that are lettered–Schedule A, B, C, etc.? For the most part, they’re still in play, and you can continue to use them to report your 2018 income tax information.
  • Here’s an example of how your reporting methods may change. If you claimed an education credit for 2017, it would have been entered on Line 50 of the 1040 form. For the 2018 tax year, if you claim an education credit you’ll complete a Schedule 3 (Nonrefundable Credits), and then include the total from Schedule 3 on Line 12 of the new form.

The purpose of these changes is to make the filing process less burdensome for a great many filers who usually didn’t have any ‘extras’ to report in previous years.

For more information about the changes coming for the 2018 tax year, see these two informative articles at Forbes.com:

Here’s How The New Postcard-Sized 1040 Differs From Your
Current Tax Return

IRS Announces 2018 Tax Rates, Standard Deductions, Exemption Amounts And More

*All information is based on IRS drafts of 2019 tax forms and is subject to change.

 

About the SAR

After you complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), be on the lookout for your Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR is an electronic or paper document that summarizes the data you put on your FAFSA. It also provides some basic information about your eligibility for federal student financial aid. If you completed, signed and submitted your FAFSA electronically, this document will be sent to your email address within 3-5 days. If you did not include an email address, a paper version of the SAR will be mailed to your postal address in approximately 2-3 weeks. You can also access your SAR by logging in to your account at FAFSA.gov.

The SAR contains important information, like your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and your Data Release Number (DRN). The EFC is a measure of your family’s financial strength and is calculated according to a formula established by law. It’s based on the information provided on the FAFSA, but the EFC is NOT the amount of money your family will have to pay for college. It’s a number used by your school to calculate the amount of federal student aid you are eligible to receive.

Your DRN is located below your EFC on the SAR and is needed if you want your college or career school to change certain types of information on your FAFSA. Speak with someone at your college Financial Aid office if there has been a significant change in income for you or your parents or you have a special circumstance you need to discuss with the aid administrator.

Your SAR might indicate that you’ve been selected for verification. This is a process schools use to confirm the information on your FAFSA is correct. Your college financial aid office will notify you if additional paperwork is needed to fulfill this requirement.

Review the remainder of your SAR for any errors. If you find anything that should be corrected, log back in to FAFSA.gov, access your FAFSA, and make the necessary changes. Then enter the appropriate FSA IDs and submit your FAFSA again.

Making Corrections to a FAFSA

How do I fix an error on my Student Aid Report?

Since most students file their FAFSAs electronically, it’s quick and easy to make your corrections online, as well. On the home page at FAFSA.gov, click ‘Log In’. If you’re making changes to your answers, click ‘I am the student’. If your parents are making a change to their answers, they should click ‘I am a parent’. Your parents can log in using your personally identifiable information, and they’ll also need your Save Key. Don’t let anyone else log in with your FSA ID!

Find the section where the correction(s) will be made. Make your changes, and don’t forget to click the ‘Submit’ button on the last page when you’re done. In a few days, another Student Aid Report (SAR) will be sent to your inbox. Review it once more to make sure your changes have been made.

If you aren’t able to make a change, notify the financial aid office at your college or university. A financial aid professional will need your Data Release Number (DRN)–a four-digit code found in the top half of your Student Air Report–to access your FAFSA. Don’t give anyone in the financial aid office your FSA ID.

If you encounter any problems while making corrections, call Federal Student Aid (FSA) at 1.800.433.3243.

I’ve Submitted the FAFSA. Now What?

Completing the FAFSA is just the first step in applying for financial aid. After your application has been processed, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR is a summary of all the information you entered on the FAFSA form. Included in the report will be your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), a number that helps determine your financial aid eligibility. When you receive the SAR, review it and make any necessary changes. You can make changes by logging into FAFSA.gov, accessing your original FAFSA application, and correcting your information. Don’t forget to resign and submit! Once you’ve updated your FAFSA, your SAR will be sent to the schools that were listed on your application. If you’re selected for verification, schools will ask you to provide more documentation to confirm that you reported the correct information. Be sure to submit documents as soon as possible to the financial aid office.

Colleges and universities will eventually send you award letters, notifying you of the amount of financial aid they’re able to offer you. Most award letters will be sent electronically, while a few others might come in the mail. Ask your campuses or choice how their notifications will be sent. The award letters will also tell you the cost of attendance. Carefully review those letters and only accept the aid you need. Always accept free money first: grants and scholarships. If you need to take out a student loan, only accept the amount you need to cover the cost of attendance. Be sure to compare different schools’ award letters as well. Consider the financial aid packages and the campus environment to decide which would be the best fit for you.

Follow up with every campus you received an award letter from and let them know how much of the financial aid package you would like to accept. Check for deadlines! Each award letter will ask you to respond by a certain date or you could lose the aid offered. Remain in constant contact with the financial aid office to make sure you take all necessary steps to secure your financial aid award.