LAUREN MIGAKI, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Lauren Migaki.
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MIGAKI: There is a lot of money out there to help you pay for college. We're talking federal aid, state aid, even scholarships to the university you want to go to. And all you have to do to tap into that money is fill out a wonky, kind of long, complex government form. It's called the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. That's FAFSA. Sounds like a party, right? But remember, at the end of this could be a lot of money. And we know that every year, lots of students miss out on that money. They just leave it on the table because they don't fill out this form. And we're going to talk about everything you need to know to apply for that money and why you should do it sooner rather than later.
I'm here with higher education reporter Elissa Nadworny. Hey, Elissa.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hey, Lauren.
MIGAKI: So let's just jump in and start at square one. Elissa, what is the FAFSA, for those students and parents who have not yet had the joy of filling out this application?
NADWORNY: Well, the most important thing you need to know is that it's free. So the FAFSA is a federal questionnaire that students fill out to find out if they're eligible for money to help pay for college. And it determines how much money you get. Someone told me recently that it's like this key, and once you get this key, it opens up the door to a whole bunch of money for you to go to college.
MIGAKI: OK, what kind of money are we talking here then?
NADWORNY: Well, it's not just loans. A lot of people think that it is. You know, it does include loans, of course, but it also includes grants and scholarships. That is money that you don't have to pay back. In order to be eligible for a lot of scholarships and grants, like at the state level or at the college you're thinking of applying to, you have to have filled out the FAFSA. So it really is that first step to tapping into a whole bunch of money.
MIGAKI: OK, so who fills this out? Is it just college students, or is it anyone?
NADWORNY: Anybody who is thinking they might want to go to college within the next year. So I know times are super uncertain right now, but even if you're just thinking about going to school or taking a few classes, you'll still want to fill out the FAFSA, because once you know the aid you're eligible for, it can really start making the whole college thing seem more doable and more possible because there's going to be money behind it. Even if you're someone who thinks you wouldn't qualify for financial aid, fill it out because you might be surprised.
MIGAKI: OK, all right, you've convinced me. I'll fill out the FAFSA. What kind of questions are they going to ask me?
NADWORNY: So the first few questions are mostly demographic questions. They're trying to get to know you as a student - where you live, where you go to school, how many people are in your family. And then it's going to move toward the financial questions. How much money did you report making on your taxes last year? How much money do you have in savings? How much money your parents have?
It could feel kind of overwhelming. I want to play a little tape from Dominique Gunn, who's a college adviser in Columbus, Ohio. She says it's not uncommon for her students to be apprehensive about the FAFSA, but there is no need to worry.
DOMINIQUE GUNN: The unknown is what's scary, right? Like, I don't know what this form is. I've never heard of it before - have all these weird letters. What is this? But once you just sit down, look at it, do it, submit, then you're like, oh, well, that wasn't even that bad.
NADWORNY: So just sit down and do it. Gunn told me that on average, it takes her students about 30 to 45 minutes to fill this out. But, of course, it could be faster.
MIGAKI: OK, 30 to 45 minutes - that doesn't sound too bad.
NADWORNY: Yeah, 30 minutes to tap into a whole bunch of money. The other cool thing about the FAFSA is that you can start and stop it. Like, you don't have to do it all in one sitting. So if you get stumped on a question or, honestly, if you're just tired, you can save it, close it and then come back and revisit it later.
MIGAKI: OK, so if we do get stumped, we're going to talk about where you can go for help in just a minute. But first of all, what's my deadline? When do I fill this out?
NADWORNY: Well, the sooner the better. The website where you fill out the FAFSA opens up October 1. So it's October right now. A lot of people call this FAFSA season. I talked with Sara Urquidez. She runs a nonprofit that provides college counseling to high school students in Dallas and Houston. I actually caught her as she was wrapping up a virtual FAFSA workshop. Let's listen.
SARA URQUIDEZ: Many states and a lot of institutional funds are first come, first served. And what that means is the earlier you get in line, the more money you could potentially receive from a particular institution.
NADWORNY: Experts say the worst thing you can do when it comes to the college process is missing deadlines, and that's especially true when it comes to getting money to pay for college.
The reality is, like, if you think of this as the first step in the college process, just check it off. Like, get it off your to-do list early October, and then you can start to think about, like, what schools you want to do, like, what the actual plan is.
MIGAKI: Get to the fun stuff.
NADWORNY: Exactly. Like, get this out of the way.
MIGAKI: All right, so what do I need to fill out the application? Like, what kind of documents and things should I have prepared before me and my parents sit down to fill it out?
NADWORNY: Well, the first thing you're going to need is something called an FSA ID. It's actually on a different website. The URL is fsaid.ed.gov. But I just Google FSA ID, and it comes up. It's basically your electronic signature, which is nice because it means you don't have to print anything out and sign it and then figure out how to get it back to your computer. Your FSA ID does that for you. So you're going to need that before you begin filling out the FAFSA.
MIGAKI: OK, so I'm going to go to this other website. I'm going to get an FSA ID. What else?
NADWORNY: OK, then the other documents you're going to need are your Social Security number. So maybe you have, like, a little card that you keep in your wallet or you just memorized yours. If you're not a U.S. citizen, you'll need your permanent resident number. And then other thinking you're going to need are you or your parent's taxes from the previous year. So two years before the year you’re going to attend college. So if you’re filling it out this fall, it’s last year’s taxes.
NADWORNY: So there's this really cool tool built into the FAFSA. It actually talks to the IRS website and pulls in your last year's taxes. But everyone I've talked to said it's really helpful if you just have those paper documents in front of you so you can reference stuff or if something's wrong, you can confirm it. Here's Dominique Gunn, the college adviser from Ohio.
GUNN: So literally, all we're doing is plugging and chugging - plugging in information in, moving on to the next page.
NADWORNY: For the average student, your parents' tax documents or yours will totally be enough.
MIGAKI: OK, so I think I'm starting to get an understanding of what they're doing here. They're looking at your taxes to get a sense of how much money you or your family made to see how much financial aid you're going to need for college. But this year's crazy. Let's say my parents lost their job in June. What do I do now?
NADWORNY: You know what? This is happening to a lot of people. Especially when you fill out your taxes from a previous year. You’re missing a big chunk. But you’re not out of luck. Schools know that things are still turbulent. I talked with with Karla Weber, who works in the student financial aid office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Here's what she said.
KARLA WEBER: So what you do is you still have to fill out the FAFSA as it's requested for that information, but then you reach out to your school's financial aid office and let them know, hey, something's happened. Our finances are just a little bit different now. What can we do to let you know so you can take a second look?
NADWORNY: So they're anticipating that this is going to happen for a lot of their students.
MIGAKI: OK, so they're just waiting for our call.
NADWORNY: They really are waiting for your call. I mean, financial aid offices are bracing for it, and they're anticipating it.
MIGAKI: Does the same thing apply if my financial situation changes, say, after I fill out the FAFSA?
NADWORNY: Yeah, so that's correct. So after you fill out the FAFSA, you select 10 schools that you want the FAFSA information to get sent to.
MIGAKI: My favorite schools, my top 10 schools.
NADWORNY: Yeah, exactly. And a lot of experts say, like, make this as wide as possible. Definitely use all 10 of those slots 'cause you never know what the financial situation is going to be. So those schools - they're going to be the ones that let you know how much money you're eligible for. So if something changes in your financial situation, you're going to go directly to the colleges that you've sent your FAFSA to to let them know things have changed.
There are lots of really good resources to help you through this process of kind of letting schools know that your financial situation has changed. There's an awesome website called SwiftStudent that has form letters and so much information that can help you through this.
MIGAKI: All right, so I'm filling out the FAFSA. I'm going along. I've set aside 30 minutes. But then I get stuck on a question. Who can I go to for help with this?
NADWORNY: Well, I would start with your high school. If you're in high school, your guidance counselor, college advisers, even your teachers - they're going to be able to help you fill this form out. A lot of high schools are actually offering virtual workshops to fill out the FAFSA. Of course, this used to be done, like, in the hallway or on a lunch break in high school, but because a lot of the buildings are closed right now, they're migrating this onto the Internet. It's really, really helpful to just have someone there to ask questions, like, while you're filling it out.
The other resource that I think a lot of people don't think about is the financial aid office at a local college or a college that you're interested in. They're just as incentivized to help you as the folks at your high school. This is what they deal with all the time. Like, this is what's literally in their job description. Here's Karla Weber again. She's the one who works in the financial aid office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
WEBER: The financial aid office is your friend in this process. I think sometimes we get made out to be the ones that are, you know, hiding or hoarding this money from students, where it's really just the opposite. Our goal is to get them as much as we can, you know, obviously within the bounds of the rules that we have to follow.
MIGAKI: OK, so I'm going to be besties with someone in the financial aid office at a school that I've applied to.
NADWORNY: Yeah. I actually heard this great story about a high school student here in D.C. who sent the financial aid office at the school she wanted to get more money from a headshot. Like, she printed it out and put it on a postcard and sent it to them. And she was like, leave this by your phone at your desk so, like, if more money becomes available, you think of me.
MIGAKI: (Laughter) All right, so when and how do I hear back about the financial aid package that I've gotten?
NADWORNY: So most colleges will have very specific timelines on their website. So when you can expect to hear back from them on financial aid and on acceptance, you know, it could be anywhere from a few weeks after you send them your FAFSA to months later. Some of the more selective schools that are harder to get into, they wait until they accept you in the spring to show you the money you've qualified for. But a lot of state schools have rolling admissions, and so they may let you know just a couple weeks after you've filled out the FAFSA.
MIGAKI: OK, so I've gotten my financial aid package from the school, my dream school. It's a mix of grants, which don't have to be paid back, and loans. Do I have to take those loans? What if I don't want to?
NADWORNY: This is why they call it an offer letter. So it's letting you know what money is available to you, but you can always turn it down. So it's just what's been offered to you. You have the final say.
MIGAKI: What if I'm not offered enough money to pay for college?
NADWORNY: If after your financial aid offer comes and the money still doesn't add up, you can reach out to the financial aid office and let them know your situation. So they may point you to an official appeals process, a form to fill out online, or they might suggest a scholarship that you should apply to. Sometimes they're even able to simply readjust some things and add some grant money to your offer letter. But all of those options start by reaching out to the financial aid office and saying, hey, this wasn't enough money. I don't think I can afford to go here. There are still some gaps.
I spent a couple months in a guidance counselor's office a few years ago, and I witnessed her calling on behalf of students. And several times, they got more money. Look; the colleges want you to enroll, so they're going to try and help you figure out how to pay for it.
MIGAKI: What if I'm deciding between two schools and my decision depends on, you know, how much money each school offers me?
NADWORNY: You have a lot of power here. Like, you can reach out to them and say, I'm getting a full ride over here. What can you do to match this? I really want to go to your college, but the financial situation doesn't work, and this college is giving me more money. I've seen this happen firsthand, also. You just - you never know. You got to ask.
MIGAKI: All right, so, Elissa Nadworny, what I'm getting from you is all you have to do is fill out this form. That's the TL;DR of this whole episode is just go fill out the FAFSA.
NADWORNY: Yes. It's free. Just do it. It's not that bad.
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MIGAKI: But before you do that, a quick recap. Takeaway No. 1 - fill out the form now.
MIGAKI: It's free, and it's at fafsa.ed.gov. That's fafsa.ed.gov.
MIGAKI: Takeaway No. 2 - the earlier, the better. Don't wait to tap into those funds that could run out if you wait.
NADWORNY: The sooner the better. Get that money. Get in line.
MIGAKI: Takeaway No. 3 - ask for help. The guidance counselor at your school might be helpful, or the financial aid office at the college you're applying to. Remember, if your financial situation changes, you can always ask for help again.
NADWORNY: Yeah, it's not as painful as it sounds, and usually on the other end is more money.
MIGAKI: OK, that was NPR's Elissa Nadworny helping us work through all of this. Elissa, thank you so much.
NADWORNY: You bet, Lauren.
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MIGAKI: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got a deep dive into how to succeed in your online classes and another about how to find teletherapy during COVID-19. You can find all of those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and you want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voicemail at email@example.com.
This episode was produced by Clare Lombardo. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo. And our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. I'm Lauren Migaki. Thanks for listening.
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