FAQs about Financial Aid
Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about financial aid.
1. I probably don't qualify for aid. Should I apply for aid anyway?
Yes. Many families mistakenly think they don't qualify for aid and prevent themselves from receiving financial aid by failing to apply for it. In addition, there are a few sources of aid such as unsubsidized Stafford and PLUS loans that are available regardless of need. The FAFSA form is free. There is no good excuse for not applying.
No. You can apply for financial aid any time after January 1. To actually receive funds, however, you must be admitted and enrolled at the university.
3. Why can't I submit my financial aid application before January 1?
The need analysis process for financial aid uses the family's income and tax information from the most recent tax year (the base year) to judge your eligibility for need-based financial aid during the upcoming academic year (the award year). Since the base year ends December 31, you cannot submit a financial aid application until January 1. After all, your parents might earn a year-end bonus or realize capital gains from selling stocks on December 31. If you submit the financial aid application before January 1, it will be rejected.
4. Do I have to reapply for financial aid every year?
Yes. Most financial aid offices require that you apply for financial aid every year. If your financial circumstances change, you may get more or less aid. After your first year you will receive a "Renewal Application" which contains preprinted information from the previous year's FAFSA. Note that your eligibility for financial aid may change significantly, especially if you have a different number of family members in college. Renewal of your financial aid package also depends on your making satisfactory academic progress toward a degree, such as earning a minimum number of credits and achieving a minimum GPA.
5. How do I apply for a Pell Grant and other types of need-based aid?
Submit a FAFSA. To indicate interest in student employment, student loans and parent loans, you should check the appropriate boxes. Checking these boxes does not commit you to accepting these types of aid. You will have the opportunity to accept or decline each part of your aid package later. Leaving these boxes unchecked will not increase the amount of grants you receive.
6. Are my parents responsible for my educational loans?
No. Parents are, however, responsible for the Federal PLUS loans. Parents will only be responsible for your educational loans if they co-sign your loan. In general you and you alone are responsible for repaying your educational loans.
You do not need to get your parents to cosign your federal student loans, even if you are under age 18, as the 'defense of infancy' does not apply to federal student loans. (The defense of infancy presumes that a minor is not able to enter into contracts, and considers any such contract to be void. There is an explicit exemption to this principle in the Higher Education Act with regard to federal student loans.) However, lenders may require a cosigner on private student loans if your credit history is insufficient or if you are underage. In fact, many private student loan programs are not available to students under age 18 because of the defense of infancy.
If your parents (or grandparents) want to help pay off your loan, you can have your billing statements sent to their address. Likewise, if your lender or loan servicer provides an electronic payment service, where the monthly payments are automatically deducted from a bank account, your parents can agree to have the payments deducted from their account. But your parents are under no obligation to repay your loans. If they forget to pay the bill on time or decide to cancel the electronic payment agreement, you will be held responsible for the payments, not them.
7. Why is the family contribution listed on the SAR different from the family contribution expected by the university?
The federal formula for computing the expected family contribution is different from those used by many universities. In particular, the federal formula does not consider home equity as part of the assets.
8. If I take a leave of absence, do I have to start repaying my loans?
Not immediately. The subsidized Stafford loan has a grace period of 6 months and the Perkins loan a grace period of 9 months before the student must begin repaying the loan. When you take a leave of absence you will not have to repay your loan until the grace period is used up. If you use up the grace period, however, when you graduate you will have to begin repaying your loan immediately. It is possible to request an extension to the grace period, but this must be done before the grace period is used up.
If your grace period has run out in the middle of your leave of absence, you will have to start making payments on your student loans.
9. I got an outside scholarship. Should I report it to the financial aid office?
Yes. If you are receiving any kind of financial aid from university or government sources, you must report the scholarship to the financial aid office.
Unfortunately, the university will adjust your financial aid package to compensate. Nevertheless, the outside scholarship will have some beneficial effects. At some universities outside scholarships are used to reduce the self-help level. For example, at MIT the outside scholarship is first applied to reducing the self-help level, and only when the scholarship exceeds self-help does it replace institutional grants. At other universities outside scholarships are used to replace loans instead of grants.
10. What are GATE loans, and why doesn't my university participate?
GATE loans is a nonprofit private loan program (Guaranteed Access to Education) offered through participating schools in conjunction with Bank of America and the National Collegiate Trust (NCT). There is a minimal credit check (no FICO score or cosigner requirement) and schools can recommend whatever loan amount they'd like the student to receive. The interest rates range from LIBOR + 2.35% to LIBOR + 8.85%, with fees of 0% to 9%. The loan term is 13 to 20 years. The GATE loan program has been suspended effective June 15, 2008.
If this program is so wonderful -- no loan limit, no credit check, low interest rate -- why don't more schools participate? There are several reasons why a university might not want to participate in this program:
There is some risk-sharing by the schools. As a result, the program will be most attractive to schools with a low default rate.
There are no federal guidelines or regulations governing this loan program.
Membership is not open to two-year colleges.
Universities that are interested in participating in the GATE loan program should call 1-800-895-GATE (4283).
11. Where can I get information about Federal student financial aid?
Call the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC) at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 1-800-730-8913 (if hearing impaired) and ask for a free copy of The Student Guide: Financial Aid from the US Department of Education. This toll free hotline is run by the US Department of Education and can answer questions about federal and state student aid programs and applications. You can also write to
Federal Student Aid Information Center
12. Are work-study earnings taxable?
The money you earn from Federal Work-Study is generally subject to federal and state income tax, but exempt from FICA taxes (provided you are enrolled full time and work less than half-time).
Federal Work-Study earnings during the calendar year should be included in the totals for AGI and Worksheet C on the FAFSA. Work-study earnings should only be included in Worksheet C when they represent financial aid to the student, since the answer to this question is used as an exclusion from taxed income. The student should also be careful to report amounts based on the calendar year, not the school year.
13. Is it legal for a 17-year-old student to sign a promissory note for a student loan, even though the student has not yet reached the age of majority?
Normally, a minor cannot be held liable for a contract that they sign. However, in 1992 the Higher Education Act was amended to permit eligible students, defined as per Title IV regulations, to sign promissory notes for their own Federal student loans. As such, student loans represent one of the few exceptions to the so-called "defense of infancy". The specific citation is section 484A(b)(2) of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 USC 1091a(b)(2)), and applies to Stafford, PLUS and Consolidation Loans. It does not appear to apply to Perkins and Direct Loans, although it was clearly the intent of Congress that it should.
Several states have also passed similar laws that consider minors to be competent to enter into a contract for an education loan. This extends similar protection to private and non-federal loans. All private education loans require a cosigner when the student is under the age of majority, just to be safe.
1. Where can I get a copy of the FAFSA?
You can ask your guidance counselor for a copy. You can also get the FAFSA from the financial aid office at a local college, your local public library, or by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID. The online version of the form is available at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov.
2. Are photocopies of the FAFSA acceptable?
No. Only the original FAFSA form produced by the US Department of Education is acceptable. Photocopies, reproductions, facsimiles and electronic versions are all not acceptable. (See DCL GEN-95-21.)
3. How soon after January 1 should the FAFSA form be sent in? Is it better to wait until the income tax forms have been completed?
Send in the form as soon as possible after January 1. Do not wait until your taxes are done. Although it is better to do your taxes early, it is ok to use estimates of your income, so long as they aren't very far off from the actual values. You will have an opportunity to correct any errors later. If you wait too long, you might miss the deadline for state aid. Most states require the FAFSA to be submitted by March 1, and some even as early as early or mid-February.
4. I sent in my FAFSA over four weeks ago but haven't heard anything. What should I do?
If you haven't received a Student Aid Report (SAR), call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (toll free) or 1-319-337-5665. You must provide them with your Social Security number and date of birth as verification.
You can also write to
Federal Student Aid Programs
to find out whether your FAFSA has been processed or to request a duplicate copy of your SAR.
5. I was born on January 1, when I will be 24 years old. Can I check Yes in the answer to the FAFSA question "Were you born before January 1, ..." to qualify as an independent student?
The official answer is no. If you check yes, your SAR will be flagged for verification. However, most financial aid administrators would use professional judgment to override the default dependency determination for a student born on January 1 who also demonstrates financial self-sufficiency.
6. What do those acronyms on the Student Aid Report (SAR) mean?
The acronyms on the bottom of the SAR represent intermediate results in the need analysis. To fully understand their meaning, you will need to be familiar with the federal need analysis methodology, such as is used by the EFC Estimator. The meanings of the acronyms are as follows:
If an asterisk appears next to the EFC figure, the student has been selected for verification. The asterisk is followed by a code that explains the reason why the student was selected for verification. The letter explains the reason for selection, and the number indicates the priority, with code 1 the highest priority and code 25 the lowest priority (although there are higher codes).
For additional details about SARs and ISIRs, please see the Guide to 1997-98 SARs and ISIRs.
7. I qualify for the Simplified Needs Test. Should I fill out Section G anyway?
Yes. Some states and most private colleges require the asset information in Section G to compute their own financial aid awards. Including this information will not affect your eligibility for federal financial aid (it is disregarded by the Federal Need Analysis Methodology if you qualify for the Simplified Needs Test). Even if none of the schools require the information, you should include it anyway, just in case.
1. Are there any programs that provide student financial assistance to homeschooled children?
Homeschooled students are eligible for federal student aid for college if they have "completed a secondary school education in a home school setting that is treated as a home school or private school under State law" (Section 484(d)(3) of the Higher Education Act of 1965). Homeschooled students have not been required to take the GED or take an ability-to-benefit test since the Higher Education Amendments of 1998. High school dropouts must take a GED exam or an ability-to-benefit test, but students who have completed a home schooled secondary education that satisfies the requirements of state law do not. For additional information, see Federal Requirements for Homeschoolers Seeking College Admission and Financial Aid, Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), May 2003.
Many private scholarships are open to homeschooled students. Some scholarships, however, require a high school diploma or GED. If a scholarship requires a high school diploma or GED, ask for a clarification or exception before applying. If you encounter resistance, it can help to point out that in 2005 the winner of the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology's $100,000 scholarship was a 16-year-old homeschooled student.
There aren't many scholarships specifically targeted at homeschooled students, other than those sponsored by the Home School Foundation.
An entire section of FinAid is devoted to the topic of Divorce and Financial Aid. It discusses which parent is responsible for completing the FAFSA, the obligations of non-custodial parents to pay for college, college support agreements, the obligations of step-parents, and the ability of non-custodial parents to take advantage of the various tax benefits for education.
An entire section of FinAid is devoted to the topic of Bankruptcy and Financial Aid. It discusses both whether student loans can be discharged by bankruptcy, as well as the impact of a bankruptcy on eligibility for student aid.
1. I have heard about a scholarship for left-handed students. Can you tell me more information about it?
This question comes up frequently, because the popular press and scholarship matching services like to use it as an example of unusual scholarships.
The only scholarship for left-handed students is the Frederick and Mary F. Beckley Scholarship of up to $1,000. This scholarship is awarded to left-handed students who will be attending Juniata College. This scholarship is not available to students who aren't enrolled at Juniata College. For more information, write to Office of Student Financial Planning, Juniata College, 1700 Moore Street, Huntington, PA 16652.
A handful of schools have instituted one-time tuition rate cuts, temporary tuition freezes, or level tuition rates (same tuition rate all four years). A list of these colleges can be found in the Tuition Freezes, Tuition Cuts and Level Tuition section of FinAid.
A handful of schools have instituted policies that ensure that low income students have no loans in their financial aid packages. See No Loans for Low Income Students and Free Tuition for additional information.
4. Is financial aid available for illegal aliens and undocumented students?
5. Why doesn't the FAFSA include line 58 of IRS Form 1040 (self employment tax) with taxes paid?
Line 27 of IRS Form 1040 subtracts one-half of self-employment taxes from AGI, corresponding to the employer's share of FICA taxes. The employee share of FICA taxes is calculated automatically by the need analysis formula based on income earned from work. If you include line 58 in the total for taxes paid, contrary to the FAFSA instructions, you are double counting the self-employment taxes.
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