How to Get the Most Money from the FAFSA

Cutting college costs through the FAFSA is the most efficient way of minimizing your loans

Photo courtesy of Pexels

If it's your first time filling out the FAFSA or the last, making sure that you can fill it out effectively is your best bet at getting the most money from the federal government as possible. Even thinking about filling out the FAFSA can feel intimidating especially if you don't know what you're doing. That's why Grantford is here to help give tips and tricks on how to fill out the FAFSA the most effectively for yourself and for your family.

The United States is currently in a student loan epidemic with the average American having accumulated an average of $39,000 in student loan debt over the course of their four years in undergrad. Nationally, the average total amount of debt is more than $1.7 trillion. To make sure that you don't have too many loans that feel almost impossible to pay, it's best to learn as much as possible from your peers or even by contacting your financial aid office for tips on how to fill out the FAFSA effectively.

Now more than ever is the time to try and maximize the amount of aid that you receive. First, let's start with the basics. 

The percentage of students who accept financial aid grows by an average of 0.09% each year, and around 33% of undergraduates each receive an average of $8,285 in federal loans. Photo courtesy of Pexels.

What is the FAFSA? 

Otherwise known as the Federal Application for Student Aid, the FAFSA is college financial assistance offered by the Federal Department of Education. To apply for the FAFSA, your parents or guardians have to submit their tax paperwork. Understanding taxes is only the beginning of the financial aid process. It's crucial to fill out this form so you can discover your eligibility for aid. Filling out the FAFSA is free for all, and once you get the hang of it, it's really simple to figure out. The first time you do it is always the hardest, so that’s why we’re here to assist in any way possible to smooth out the process. 

When you go to the Department of Education’s website, they offer you a step by step guide to filling out the FAFSA form. The FAFSA determines your eligibility for federal grants, work-study, and loans, and sends that info to the colleges of your choice. After your institution receives the information, they will determine how much financial aid, scholarships, loans and grants they will give you for that year. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool makes the process of filling out the FAFSA easier and almost instantaneous by transferring your parents financial information from the federal government. 

After you receive your financial aid offer, you will be able to review it and, if necessary, adjust it. Each college will give you a different offer, so try to compare them to see which one is the best fit for you. Also, think about how your offer may change throughout the four years you attend. Once you've narrowed down your decision you'll inform them before the deadline, accepting the offer. 

You can get grants, or subsidized loans (where interest on these loans are paid by the Education Department during school) or unsubsidized loans (where interest begins accruing as soon as the loan is dispersed, during school). 

Here are some tips on how to get as much bang for your buck from the FAFSA no matter what you or your parents’ financial status is. 

When it comes down to college costs, every penny counts when trying to minimize your student loans and maximize the amount of scholarships and aid you receive. Photo courtesy of Pexels.

Fill out the FAFSA Early

If you haven’t filled out the FAFSA, now’s the time. The opportunity to fill out the free FAFSA form for the 2022-2023 school year began on October first, 2021. It's best to fill it out as soon as possible to maximize the amount of aid you receive. Federal financial aid is given on a first come, first serve basis. The last possible day to file your FAFSA or make any adjustments is by June 30, 2022, for the next school year. 

By filling out the fast way you can see if you will be eligible for certain grants and scholarships offered by the federal government or even on a state-to-state basis. Also, if you fill it out early you will know how many other scholarships you will need in order to pay for the rest of your college education. For instance say you want to take out  the least amount of loans as possible. In order to do that you need to fill out the FAFSA to see how much you owe based on your parents income.

But, what happens if you fill it out later rather than sooner? If you miss the FAFSA deadline, you could be missing out on aid and access to government student loans. Missing the federal FAFSA deadline means you will have to wait till the following academic year to get access to aid and loans, or in other words, that you won’t be able to attend college.

Have no fear though the majority of people fill out the FAFSA on time and it's a very simple process that takes at most half an hour. The best way to fill it out is with a parent or Guardian assisting you or by trying to incorporate a study group with some friends who already have filled out the FAFSA if you don't know how to fill it out. Once you begin college, it will be second nature to you to fill it out every fall or at the beginning of each New Year. 

If your EFC is 0, you get the most aid

Your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, on the FAFSA is a simple way of saying that you have a certain income threshold based on your parents financial contribution. Zero is the lowest EFC number with 99,999 as the highest. If a dependent students' family's income is less than $24,000 and government assistance was needed for that filing year, the EFC will automatically be zero. A zero means a family has no ability to contribute to the student's education. Read on for more information on how to file a FAFSA.

Your EFC is calculated according to a formula established by law and considers your family’s taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits (such as unemployment or Social Security). Schools use the EFC to determine your federal aid eligibility and financial aid award. You can calculate your predicted EFC on the College Board website.

You can find out how to pay for college using four key resources: Private loans, federal loans, scholarships, and the FAFSA. Photo courtesy of Niche.

How Much is the Most Aid You Can Receive? 

Your aid consists of a combination of many different awards, scholarships, grants, work study, and loans. How much of each of these you receive depends on whether you are an independent (don't rely on parents for financial purposes) or a dependent (depends on parents for financial assistance) student. This is all calculated when you file your FAFSA. In order to determine whether you are an independent student you have to provide documentation proving this alongside any additional forms that your financial aid office asks for. 

Here is the average and maximum amounts of different aid that students can receive from filling out the FAFSA as of 2020:

  • Federal Pell Grant – $4,310 (average); $6,345 (maximum).
  • Federal Direct Stafford Loan – $5,800 (dependent); $7,630 (independent); $5,500 to $7,500 (dependent); $9,500 to $12,500 (independent).
  • Federal Work-Study – $2,340 (No maximum).
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant – $670 (average); $4,000 (maximum).
  • Total Federal Student Aid – $13,120 (dependent); $14,950 (independent); $19,845 to $21,845 (dependent); $23,845 to $32,345 (independent).
  • Total Federal Grants – $4,980 (average); $10,345 (maximum).
Getting a degree can be more expensive than just the bill. There are two different kinds of costs when you go away to college: direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include tuition or anything else that the college financial aid department bills you for. Indirect costs include room and board, transportation, textbooks, and any other personal expenses (i.e. phone bill, car insurance) which can build up quickly. Photo courtesy of College Forward.

Want More Tips? 

If you’re looking to find more scholarships, or other ways of achieving your college degree for free, look at scholarship search engines online. We recommend searching via the State Department of Education, our Go Financial Aid Facebook and Twitter pages, and free scholarship search engines like Niche, Fastweb, College Board, Scholly, and If you’re still looking to make a college decision, check out college selection search engines such as US News and Cappex

Going through college applications, alongside figuring out your financial aid status can be a confusing and difficult process. Grantford's team hopes to provide students in both undergrad and graduate programs with resources to even the playing field. You can meet with us or view our various categories of resources on our website. For annual updates, subscribe to our financial aid advice newsletter.

Liz Anastasiadis
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