Understanding Federal Financial Aid and The FAFSA

By Beth Dumbauld

(Note: The information contained in this report is for educational purposes only. StraighterLine is in no way liable for any factual errors that may be contained herein, nor are we providing any specific legal or financial advice. As with any financial aid issue, please consult your professional financial aid advisor.)

If you are going back to college as an adult learner, you are probably spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to pay for a college education within the confines of your current financial obligations. As you do your research regarding financial aid, whether it’s trying to obtain free money for college, grants for the adult college student, or just understand more about loans for college, what you most likely keep hearing about is applying for Federal Financial Aid by submitting a FAFSA. Submitting a FAFSA is essential to receiving financial aid. The information received from a processed FAFSA is the critical linchpin in determining your eligibility for most types of grants and loans for college.

What Is A FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This is the form used to apply for all federal, as well as many state, regional, and private student financial aid programs. Each year about 14 million FAFSAs are processed.1

Money from federal student financial aid can be used to cover the most common school expenses including:

  • tuition and fees,
  • room and board,
  • books and supplies,
  • transportation.

Keep in mind, that in order to actually receive federal financial aid, you must be enrolled at a participating postsecondary institution. Postsecondary educational institutions are considered 2- or 4-year colleges including community colleges, universities, career schools, as well as trade schools.

Use A College Savings Calculator Before Filling Out A FAFSA

As you consider going back to college, you will want to have an estimate of how much and what kind of financial aid you most likely will qualify for. Before you submit all the material required for the FAFSA, you can work with a college savings calculator for planning purposes. For an adult learner, the ability to plan in advance can really help with developing a budget. Having an understanding of the costs involved in going back to college and your ability to qualify for financial aid can turn the possibility of going to college into a reality.

Fortunately, there are helpful college aid calculators out there to help guide your budget and allow you a good overview of what to expect in terms of financial aid eligibility and out-pocket-expenses. A college savings calculator is more than just a blanket list of college costs and expected tuition rates. A college savings calculator will look at things like your income, savings, numbers of students in college at the same time, costs of college, and etc. to determine the amount you will be expected to contribute to college. The remaining amount of college costs, depending on the cost of the college you are considering going to, will be the amount you can expect to be covered by financial aid (loans, grants, etc).

1 Federal Student Aid, About Us, 2012

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