Becoming a professional counselor is a multi-step process that begins with a graduate education and ends with fulfilling licensure requirements. In between, however, students must find ways to pay for their education and training. To begin this process, students should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to establish their eligibility for a range of federal and state financial aid opportunities. Administered by the U.S. Department of Education (ED), the FAFSA is required to receive any form of federal need-based financial aid in the United States. Federal student aid programs make college affordable for more than 13 million students, and provide over $120 billion annually in federal grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study funds.
The information a student submits on their FAFSA can also determine their eligibility for privately funded grants or scholarships, college-specific student aid, or state-funded assistance programs. Many schools require a completed FAFSA for all applicants to their programs, even for those who plan to self-finance their education, or who believe that they do not qualify for any financial aid. Anyone pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree should become familiar with FAFSA funding and file the application. Neglecting this step means possibly missing out on several sources of financial assistance.
How to Get Financial Aid in Counseling
Most student aid is granted by the federal or state government, however colleges and private foundations also provide various types of financial assistance. Prospective counseling students should familiarize themselves with the categories of financial aid and their respective differences. For example, loans carry the expectation of repayment; loan forgiveness programs may waive some or all monies loaned; grants and scholarships do not require repayment; and work-study awards require some form of campus employment in exchange for funding.
The aid granted as a result of your FAFSA can be used for a range of educational purposes, including colleges, career schools, and graduate or professional degrees. A completed FAFSA determines the kind and the extent of funding available, while schools decide the amount of financial aid a student receives by calculating the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This formula is based on information a student provides the FAFSA about family size, income, and other assets. Recipients receive federal student aid if they maintain the basic eligibility requirements, remain in satisfactory academic standing, and complete the FAFSA form each year they are in school.
Students often turn to loans, issued by the federal government or private banks, to finance their education. Federal need-based loans carry a fixed interest rate and do not require repayment until after you leave school. Private loans charge a higher interest rate, impose strict enrollment and graduation regulations for repayment, and should be considered as a last resort after exhausting all other funding sources. Grants generally do not require repayment unless the student drops out of school or is placed on academic probation. While the federal government serves as the largest provider of need-based grants, many colleges offer specialized grants. Some financial aid packages also offer work-study programs that place students in part-time, on-campus jobs.
FAFSA Eligibility Requirements
Eligibility for financial aid through FAFSA requires admission or enrollment in a recognized degree or certificate program. Applicants must possess a valid Social Security number or official government ID, and males between 18 and 25 must register with the Selective Service. Only U.S. citizens or permanent residents who possess a Green Card may apply. Educational requirements include a high school diploma, or a recognized equivalent such as a GED or homeschooling certificate. While most people who meet these criteria qualify for some kind of aid, exceptions do apply. Those who have been incarcerated or convicted for a drug or sexual offense may find their student aid eligibility restricted.
How to Complete the FAFSA
When Should You Submit the FAFSA?
While deadlines to apply for financial aid vary, some states and schools allocate their funding on a first-come, first-serve basis. As a result, students who submit their FAFSA within the first three months of the filing season may receive more funding. The FAFSA becomes available each year on October 1, and several states set their filing deadline as soon as possible after this date. While filing early may boost the amount of aid you're awarded, filing later may benefit applicants by reducing the amount of income considered in the aid calculation.
For example, some students and families should consider whether they can take actions that reduce earnings, accelerate debt payments, or shelter after-tax dollars in retirement plans or annuities. In this case, a later FAFSA filing may be appropriate.
What Information Do You Need to Fill Out the FAFSA?
The FAFSA application may seem complicated, but if you gather the required information in advance, it should take less than an hour to complete. Begin by creating an FSA ID using the instructions on the website. Parents of dependent students also need to create an ID. A valid driver's license, Social Security card, or alien registration number serve as acceptable forms of identification. You will also need tax returns from the previous year and any records showing untaxed income.
Dependent students must provide their parents' tax records. If you did not file a tax return, you can use W-2 or 1099 forms, or pay stubs for each job held over the past year. List any other assets you may have, such as income from stocks or real estate investments. You should also document any unusual expenses along with your total debt load. Before submitting your application, make sure to list at least one school to receive your eligibility information.
Filling Out Your FAFSA
Applicants can select one of three ways to file. The easiest (and preferred) option is to apply online. Another option is to download a PDF version that can be screen-filled or completed by hand, and then sent by mail for processing. Applicants should note that online filing shortens the review process and allows you to list up to 10 colleges to receive your information. The paper version, meanwhile, only allows you to list four potential schools.
The application asks for basic background information, including address, citizenship, marital status, and legal records. This section also requests the education level of applicants and parents, the intended degree, and work-study preference. Applicants must also provide their tax returns and any evidence of untaxed income or a spouse's income, if applicable. The student status section asks whether the applicant is a military dependent, ward of the state, or emancipated.
Household information documents the number of residents living in the home and how many will attend college in the coming year. Parents with dependent children must also answer several status, financial, and household questions. Before submitting the FAFSA, the student and a parent must sign the certification statement to confirm the accuracy of all statements and indicate an agreement to all terms.
Tips for Filling Out Your FAFSA
- Apply Online: Online applications use skip-logic that only ask relevant questions and skip those that do not apply. The website catches common errors, which makes the online FAFSA more accurate and results in faster processing.
- Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool: The IRS DRT transfers tax information directly into the FAFSA form. This useful tool saves time and eliminates mistakes by entering tax information exactly as it appears on the tax form.
- List Your Potential Schools in a Particular Order: While applicants do not need to list schools in any particular order to qualify for federal aid, state aid eligibility sometimes requires this. Check this FAFSA resource to locate information on listing schools in each state.
- Fill Out Every Field of the Form: Mistakes can slow down processing. A delayed FAFSA negatively impacts the amount of aid awarded. Carefully fill in any fields that do not apply to you with a "0" rather than leaving them blank.
- Include an Explanatory Letter for Special Circumstances: Inform FAFSA about any unanticipated expenses due to life events like a layoff or major medical crisis. If this applies to you, you should submit a supplementary letter with third-party documentation explaining why the situation requires more assistance.
Submitting the FAFSA
Online FAFSA submissions require students (and a parent for dependent students) to sign the FAFSA electronically. If returning a paper application, students and parents must print the form, provide a handwritten signature, and return it by mail. The signed confirmation page affirms that the information is accurate and that the applicant will comply with all regulations.
Student Aid Report
The Student Aid Report (SAR) represents your official statement of financial aid eligibility. When you receive your copy of the SAR, make sure to review it for accuracy. If you find any errors, you must contact the Federal Student Aid website to correct your FAFSA form. The SAR contains the EFC, the amount your family should expect to contribute to your education. The schools you listed on your FAFSA receive your SAR data, and use it as the basis for awarding federal aid and other kinds of funding. If your SAR has been selected for verification, your school will require supplemental documentation before finalizing your financial aid package.
How and When Do You Get Your FAFSA Funding?
The school you attend determines how and when you receive your aid. Once you are accepted, the school will send you a paper or electronic aid offer. The aid offer provides a breakdown of the amount of the grants, loans, or work-study available to you. You do not have to take the whole award; it makes sense to accept only what you need. Check with the school's business office to find out their disbursement schedule and when you can expect to receive your federal funding.
What's the Deadline for Filing the FAFSA?
Your online application must be submitted by 12:00 AM CST, June 30, but state deadlines vary. You can check your state's deadline on the FAFSA site.
Do You Need Good Grades to Receive FAFSA Funding?
As long as students maintain satisfactory academic progress in their field of study, most federal student aid programs do not account for course grades.
Is There an Age Limit for FAFSA Aid Recipients?
FAFSA eligibility requirements do not impose an age limit. The form asks applicants their age only to determine parental dependency status.
Can Your Household Income Automatically Disqualify You from FAFSA Funding?
FAFSA does not enforce any income limits. The funding decision depends on several factors such as family size or the number of family members enrolled in college.
Do Your Parents Have to Be U.S. Citizens for You to Be Eligible for FAFSA Aid?
FAFSA does not ask about your parent's citizenship status. If they do not hold a valid Social Security card, they should enter 000-00-0000 when asked for their SS number.
How Long Does It Take to Fill Out the FAFSA?
If you take the time to get organized and gather up all your supporting documents, the FAFSA should only take 30 minutes to an hour to complete.
Can You File Your FAFSA Before You've Applied to Any Schools?
You can file before submitting any college applications. Ensure you name at least one school, and consider listing others that interest you, as they may require early deadlines. You can add or delete schools later.
Where Can You Find More Information About the FAFSA?
The Federal Student Aid website provides answers to most questions you might have and some you never thought to ask. Contact the financial aid office at the school where you applied with specific questions about your award.