What Parents Need to Know About FAFSA and Financial Aid

Becca Cornell
May 4, 2021

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form (FAFSA), especially for the first time, can be a daunting task for parents of college students. It can be even more so if you’re unsure of whether your family will qualify for financial aid.   Whether or not you think you’ll qualify, you should still complete and submit the FAFSA form. Not doing so could prevent your child from getting financial assistance that could help to pay for their schooling.    If you’re curious to see how much you potentially could qualify for, using FAFSA4caster can be a great way to get an estimate of the aid you could receive. Just remember that it’s an estimate, that gives you an idea of how much and what types of federal aid you might receive.   To make this process a little easier on yourself, try some of the tips below.   More >> Everything you need to know about FAFSA   

The steps to filing the FAFSA

By following the steps here, you can break down the process into manageable tasks.  

1. Sign up for your own and your child’s FSA ID

Your FSA ID is your ticket into the FAFSA form. Be sure to keep this in an important spot for safekeeping as you’ll need it every year to fill out the FAFSA.  

2. Start a new FAFSA each year

Each year you need to submit a new application. The good news is that because of your FSA ID, the hardest year and the one that takes the longest - is the first. In ensuing years, some of your information will already be stored with your FSA ID.  

3. Fill out your child’s information

The FAFSA will ask for general information in addition to educational information about your child. Be sure to complete this part as much as you can, including the potential schools list. By completing this, the FAFSA will send out your financial aid information to those schools automatically, saving you time from having to coordinate that after the fact.  

4. Provide your financial details

There’s a lot of information required here. It includes everything from where you live and work to details about your latest taxes. It’s important to complete this section entirely and accurately.  

5. Sign and submit

Once you officially sign and hit submit, the FAFSA form will be reviewed and then your results will be sent to the schools listed.   Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

What types of Federal Aid is your child eligible for?

There are a number of types of financial aid college students may be eligible for. We take a look at these below.  


A grant is money that you receive from either the government, or a non-profit or other organization that you don’t have to repay. You can qualify for these for a variety of reasons including financial need.  


There are three types of federal student loans:
  • Direct Subsidized Loans. These are federal student loans borrowed through the direct loan programs that offer undergraduate students a low, fixed interest rate and flexible repayment terms.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans. These are non-need based, low-interest loans with flexible repayment options. 
  • Direct Plus Loans. These are loans that both graduate and undergraduate students can use. Eligibility is not based on financial need, and a credit check is required.


Scholarships are usually awarded by schools and organizations. However, you may be eligible for a scholarship through the FAFSA as well. In fact, this is another reason (whether you plan to take loans or not) that it’s a good idea to fill out the FAFSA form.  

Work-Study jobs

Work-study jobs offered through the FAFSA ensure that you will get a job on campus to help you pay not only your school bills, but your everyday living bills as well. In addition, you can choose to have all or a certain percentage of your weekly paycheck put towards your school bills, paid directly to your school’s cashier or billing department.  

Help for military or international students

While you may already know that the military offers special benefits and help for students attending school, FAFSA actually provides different aid for both military and international students as well. Therefore, if you fall into one of these categories, make sure you submit a FAFSA form.   Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Things to talk about before filing the FAFSA

Discuss the cost of college with your child, and have them help fill out the FAFSA forms. That way, they’ll know what’s involved and the details behind the application. From there, you can talk about the differences between the possible types of aid they could receive.  

Independent vs dependent children

You need to ascertain whether your child should file as a dependent or independent student. Most undergraduate students will be dependents but if your child is at least 24 years old, or is married, or is a graduate, for example, they are deemed to be an independent student.  

Establish who is responsible to pay back the loans

There is no right or wrong answer to this question but it can be important to establish ahead of time who is responsible for the cost of your child’s college tuition. This isn’t just about who pays back the loans after graduation, but also who pays any living expenses and bills during their time at school.   Let your child know exactly how much you can help them, and how much they will be responsible for.  

Divorced parents need to decide who will file the application

This is fairly easy to determine. The first determining factor is how much time the child spends with each parent. Even if the time split is 51 percent to 49 percent, the parent that the child spends 51 percent of their time with is the one who should file.    If the split is exactly 50/50, then the parent who supports the child the most financially should be the one who files.  

Watch the deadlines

Although the FAFSA can be easy to fill out and relatively quick, especially if you’re organized, it can sometimes take longer than you think. Filing early so that you meet FAFSA deadlines will ensure you don’t miss out on financial aid opportunities.  

Review your application

Take the time to review your FAFSA form after you’ve filled it out. That step can help keep you from making mistakes that might cost you.  

Still unsure? Get help

If after reviewing your FAFSA you’re still unsure of some of your answers, it can be a good idea to see a professional. Start with a financial aid officer at one of the colleges your child wants to attend.   Photo by fauxels

How to pay for college without the federal student aid

If you decide not to apply for FAFSA – or you did, but won't be getting enough money – there are ways to supplement that funding.  


As a parent, if you think your child might want to attend college someday, it can be a good idea to start saving for college early. The earlier you start, the more you’ll be able to afford without having to take out a college loan.  


Encourage your child to apply for scholarships early and often. This can increase their chances of receiving scholarship money, reducing your out-of-pocket costs. There are a number of scholarships available through your school, but also through local organizations in your area.   Beyond these options, you can also consider private student loans.  

How to reduce costs

College is expensive, but there are ways you can save on the biggest expenses: tuition, and room and board.  

Compare and contrast schools

This means comparing schools not only just based upon merit, but on cost as well. Looking at state versus private school costs and how each college compares individually is a good idea as well. Just be sure to look at the final cost over sticker price. Some schools will have a higher sticker price but offer so much in scholarships that they actually end up being less expensive.  

Start with community college

Students can save a lot of money by attending their first two years at a local community college and then transferring into a four year university. In addition to saving money, research has found that “earning between 1 and 10 credits at a community college during the first three years of college enrollment is associated with a higher bachelor’s degree completion rate and higher wages once students enter the labor market.”