It’s award letter season! An award letter is an electronic or paper notification sent by a college, university or career tech after you’ve completed a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and applied for financial assistance. These award letters indicate the amount of financial aid you may receive for your education for the 2019-2020 academic year. After reviewing your letter(s), you might find that the amount of aid awarded to you in the form of federal and/or state grants, known as free money, won’t cover the total cost of college. Before opting for federal student loans to help with expenses, start (or keep) researching available scholarships. A scholarship is another form of free money for college that doesn’t have to be paid back. Scholarships are often competitive, but by putting in the work, you may be able to shrink your remaining school balance and limit – or eliminate – the need for a student loan!
There are many ways to search for scholarships. First, check the school you’ll be attending. Many campuses have foundation offices that provide scholarships to eligible students. Look for these scholarships each year you plan to attend. Your college’s financial aid office can also help you identify different types of scholarships.
Other sources of scholarships include private businesses, employers, churches and community organizations (YMCA/YWCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Rotary and Elks clubs, etc.). These scholarships are often posted online and typically require an application specific to each award. Save time by accessing the free and trusted databases at OKcollegestart.org and UCanGo2.org. Both sites compile thousands of scholarships available to students in Oklahoma and nationwide.
Only after you’ve exhausted all options for free money should you consider student loans. Remember, student loans must be repaid with interest, even if you don’t complete a degree, while free money from grants and scholarships does not have to be repaid.
For more information about scholarships, see our “Scholarship Success Guide.”
For more information about student loans, review “Borrow Smart from the Start.”
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has been available since October 1, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to apply! You can still apply to receive federal and state student aid in the form of grants, work-study and loans by submitting your FAFSA. Many students don’t apply at all and forgo FREE money for college! Below are some common reasons students miss out on financial aid.
Myth: If I’m not poor, very smart or super-talented, I won’t qualify for financial aid.
Reality: While it is true that the FAFSA is a need-based program, there are many factors other than income that go into the calculation. You never know if you qualify unless you apply. Plus, the FAFSA is used for more than just federal aid. Many universities and foundations require that you complete a FAFSA to be eligible for their scholarships.
Myth: I have several scholarships lined up, so I don’t need to submit a FAFSA.
Reality: College expenses include more than just tuition and fees – don’t forget about, books, room and board and transportation, among other potential costs. Submit your FAFSA to explore other funding possibilities in the event that your scholarships don’t cover all of your costs. You can always turn down aid that’s offered to you.
Myth: I’m going to pay my own way through college, so there’s no need to complete a FAFSA.
Reality: Paying your own way through college is a great plan, and completing the FAFSA could allow you to keep more of that money in your pocket. Applying for federal aid has become easier and can significantly reduce your financial burden. A few minutes of your time is definitely worth the potential for thousands of dollars in aid.
Complete your application for federal student aid today at FAFSA.gov!
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?
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
A 529 Plan can be a huge benefit in paying college expenses. However, this college savings account can be tricky to report on the FAFSA. If the account is in the student’s name or in the custodial parent’s name, then the 529 Plan should be reported as a parent asset on the FAFSA. If the student is independent, meaning s/he doesn’t have to report parental information, then the plan should be reported as a student asset. The plan doesn’t have to be reported as an asset if someone other than the student or custodial parent owns the account, such as a grandparent or family friend.
Another aspect of the 529 Plan that can be challenging is distributions from the account. Distributions are funds taken from the 529 Plan for any reason. Students and parents only have to report a distribution from the account if the plan wasn’t reported on the FAFSA as an asset. Here are some guidelines to ensure that you accurately report any 529 Plan distributions:
- A non-qualified distribution – funds taken from the account for non-educational expenses – will be included in the Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) of the student’s federal income tax return. The AGI will be a part of the student’s total income, so the student will just need to report his or her income on the FAFSA.
- A qualified distribution – funds taken from the account for educational expenses – should be reported as the student’s untaxed income on the FAFSA.
- A distribution made from an account that the student or the custodial parent does not own must be reported as the student’s untaxed income on the FAFSA, as well.
The best option for reporting a 529 Savings Plan is to leave the account in the student’s name or in the custodial parent’s name. By doing this, the Plan will be reported as an asset and the family won’t have to report distributions made from the account. For more information on how to report the 529 Plan on the FAFSA, visit Edvisors.com/plan-for-college.
Although a student must have a valid Social Security Number to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and qualify for federal student aid, undocumented students are eligible for other forms of financial aid for college.
*Remember, if your parent does not have a Social Security Number, but you do, you are eligible to complete a FAFSA and receive federal student aid. Your parent, however, will not be able to set up an FSA ID (Federal Student Aid ID) to electronically sign the FAFSA. Instead, he or she can print, sign and mail in a paper signature page.
One form of aid undocumented students can receive is the Oklahoma Tuition Aid Grant (OTAG). This is available to students who can answer yes to the following questions:
- Have you graduated from a public or private high school in Oklahoma?
- Have you resided in Oklahoma with a parent or guardian while attending a public or private high school in Oklahoma for at least two years prior to graduation?
- Have you satisfied the admission standards for the institution?
- Have you provided to the institution a copy of a true and correct application or petition filed with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to legalize the student’s immigration status?
If you answered yes to these questions, you should apply for OTAG as soon as possible after October 1 prior to each year you plan to attend college. You can find the application for undocumented students at: https://content.xap.com/media/8335/2019-20-OTAG-undoc.pdf.
Undocumented students may also receive scholarships through their college or university, foundation offices or private companies. Check out a list of scholarships for DACA and Dreamer Students here and search and apply for additional scholarships by visiting UCanGo2.org, OKcollegestart.org and OCCF.org.
Are there any special instructions for homeless students who are filling out the FAFSA?
While completing your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you may be asked three different questions about homelessness.
At any time on or after July 1 [in the year prior to the academic year covered by this FAFSA], did an official* determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?
*This determination can be given by:
- A high school or school district homeless liaison,
- A director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or
- A director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program.
As always, you should contact the financial aid office at your school(s) of interest if you need help answering any of these questions. If you answer yes to any one of the ‘homelessness’ questions, you’ll be considered an independent student and will not be required to provide your parents’ income and tax information on your FAFSA. Later on, though, you may be asked by a financial aid administrator to provide a copy of the homeless youth determination. If you did not receive a determination provided by one of the officials listed above, you’ll be considered a dependent student on the FAFSA, but you may ask a financial aid administrator to consider making their own determination. The administrator will probably ask you for additional documentation before reaching a decision.
A student is considered unaccompanied if he or she is not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian. A student is considered homeless if he or she lacks fixed, regular, and adequate housing. This includes students who are living in shelters, motels, cars, or parks, or who are temporarily living with other people because they have nowhere else to go. Students are also considered homeless if they are fleeing an abusive parent who would otherwise provide the student with financial support and a place to live.
Which street address should a homeless student provide on their FAFSA? According to the U.S. Department of Education, “You must provide a mailing address where you can reliably receive mail. Your mailing address can be the address of a relative or friend who has given you permission to use it, or it can be your college’s address. If you want to use your college’s address, you must contact the school for permission and instructions to ensure that your mail reaches you.” Don’t forget to update your FAFSA later when you find more permanent housing.
For more information and a list of additional resources for homeless students, read Questions and Answers: Federal Student Aid and Homeless Youth from StudentAid.gov.
Reporting financial information on the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) can be challenging. However, it’s an easier task with the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). The IRS DRT allows students and parents to transfer their tax information from the IRS directly into their FAFSA form. The tool is available on FAFSA.gov and became available on the myStudentAid mobile app on Oct. 1, when the 2019-2020 FAFSA became available.
To access the IRS DRT, parents and students will need to set up a FSA ID (Federal Student Aid ID). The FSA ID allows applicants to sign their FAFSA electronically, as well as access the DRT. While completing the financial information on the FAFSA, students and parents will be given the option to link to the IRS DRT. After entering their FSA ID, applicants will be taken to IRS.gov. On this website, applicants will enter some demographic data and then select the type of tax return they filed in 2017. It’s important to enter information exactly as it was shown on the original tax document. The system will then locate the applicants’ data and transfer it directly into the FAFSA. The transferred information will not be visible, but applicants will see that their income figures have indeed, been transferred. Using the IRS DRT will save time during FAFSA completion and also save time for the financial aid professionals at your college. Be sure to look for the “Link to IRS Data Retrieval Tool” button when completing your FAFSA to make this process much easier.
For more information about the FAFSA, please visit StartWithFAFSA.org.