Fall Means FAFSA

Fall Means FAFSA

This post is authored by Christina Dukes, who is currently the Federal Liaison at National Center for Homeless Education. Christina has extensive experience in federal policy, practice, and partnerships with broad expertise for youth and families at highest risk.

Ahhhh, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If you’ve attended some form of post-secondary education over the years, you’ve likely filled out the FAFSA. It’s an important and necessary step for young people who need financial assistance to make college a reality. And with the release of the new FAFSA on October 1, now is the time for youth service providers to take their FAFSA knowledge to the next level!

It’s been a while since I’ve filled out a FAFSA, and yet I remember it well. Sitting down with my parents with the FAFSA and a pen, and poring over every detail to make sure I filled it out correctly. Then, I sent the FAFSA in via snail-mail and began checking the mailbox for the award letters from the colleges where I applied. Pen and paper? Snail-mail? Was this the Stone Age? No, but it was the 1990s, which, in FAFSA terms, is basically the same thing.

Thankfully, the FAFSA has evolved since then. Almost everything FAFSA-related is done online. And since the FAFSA now uses skip logic, the applicant is guided directly to the questions they need to answer. And yet, for many young people, filling out the FAFSA is still a daunting task. This is especially true for unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness and foster care alumni, who may be the first in their family to attend college (first-generation), and may not have an adult to support them through the process.

That’s where you come in – a program staff, mentors, and advocates who can share important and needed information with the young people you interact with every day. So let’s make sure you’re in the know, so the young people you work with can be in the know, too!

FAFSA Basics

Perhaps most important is the fact that the FAFSA is free to fill out. The only website young people should use to fill out the FAFSA is the official FAFSA website: https://fafsa.ed.gov/. If a youth client tells you that a Nigerian prince emailed them and offered to pay for college, and all they have to do is wire transfer an “advance fee” of $90 or, alternately, that they filled out “the FAFSA” at a website that required $90 to submit the application, abort mission! Using only the official https://fafsa.ed.gov/ website is a must!

Also, remind young people that they will need to fill out a FAFSA for every academic year for which they hope to receive any kind of federal student aid. So, unfortunately the FAFSA isn’t a once-and-done thing; it’s a once-every-school-year-and-done thing.

FAFSA Timelines

The FAFSA for the coming academic year is released in October. Example, the 2019-2020 FAFSA will be released on October 1, 2018. To be considered for federal student aid for the 2019-2020 award year, students can complete the FAFSA between October 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019. And yet, many states and colleges use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for state and institutional aid, and may have earlier application deadlines. Because of the variation in state and college deadlines, students should fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible after its October 1 release so they don’t miss out on any available aid.

Dependent vs. Independent Students

A key distinction for young people filling out the FAFSA is whether they qualify as a dependent or independent student. A dependent student is assumed to have parental support, so the parents’ income and assets must be assessed along with the student’s in order to get a full picture of the family’s ability to contribute to the student’s educational expenses. It’s important to note, however, that the fact that a dependent student’s financial aid is calculated based on the student’s and his parents financial capabilities does not automatically mean that the student’s parents will have to pay anything toward his education. The financial aid packages of students from low-income families will reflect a low or even $0 Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

By contrast, a student who qualifies as an independent student has no expectation of parental contribution to her educational expenses and, as such, will only include her own financial and other information on the FAFSA, and not that of her parents. A student isn’t considered independent solely because their parents refuse to participate in the FAFSA process and/or contribute to his educational expenses; rather a student must fall into a specific category to be considered independent, including:

  • Age 24 or older by December 31 of the school year for which the student is applying for aid
  • Working towards a graduate degree
  • Married or separated but not divorced
  • Has children or other dependents who receive more than half of their support from the student
  • Has been in foster care or has been a ward or dependent of the court at any time since age 13
  • Is an emancipated minor or is in a legal guardianship as determined by a court
  • Is an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless
  • Is currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training
  • Is a veteran of the U.S. armed forces

There is a yes/no question on the FAFSA for each of the above independent student categories.

Advocates supporting youth in highly vulnerable situations are likely to be particularly interested in independent student status for current or former foster youth, and for unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness.

  • Current foster youth should answer “yes” to the corresponding question on the FAFSA, and contact their county social worker or Independent Living Program (ILP) Coordinator to get a copy of their court dependency letter in case they are required to document their foster care status.
  • Former foster youth should answer “yes” to the corresponding question on the FAFSA, and contact their county child welfare agency, local ILP program, or the State Foster Care Ombudsman’s Office for documentation of prior foster care involvement.
  • Unaccompanied homeless youth (UHY) can receive documentation of their status from a school district local liaison (for students enrolled in high school), from a Runaway and Homeless Youth Act-funded grantee or U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-funded shelter (for students who have received that program’s services), or a college financial aid administration (all students). There is no official federally-required form to use when documenting a UHY’s independent student status; however, sample forms that may be used are available on the NCHE website. UHY should respond “yes” to the corresponding question on the FAFSA; connect with a liaison, RHY or HUD shelter or program operator, or college financial aid administration to get written documentation of their status; and then follow up with the financial aid office(s) at the institution(s) where they applied to provide the needed documentation.

“If Only I’d Had Someone…”

I’ve had conversations with many young people over the years about what they need to transition to and be successful in a post-secondary educational environment. By far, one of the most repeated sentiments has been “I needed someone there to support me, guide me, and give me information when I needed it”. One young woman lamented that it took her two years after graduating high school to learn about and execute the steps needed to fill out the FAFSA form and enroll in college. I sensed frustration as she asked, “How much sooner could I have gotten to college had someone provided me with the information and support I needed when I needed it?” And her situation is not an isolated incident.

The good news is that this is an issue that we can do something about! Here are a handful of strategies to get you started:

  • Speak with youth served by your agency and ask them what support they need to think through their educational goals, and what information they need to be able to take needed steps to reach these goals.
  • Using youth feedback, share information with your agency’s staff about how to encourage and support young people’s educational aspirations, whether in written materials or through virtual or in-person trainings.
  • Incorporate an intentional focus on educational goals and supports into your agency’s case management efforts.
  • Connect with other youth-serving and/or education-focused agencies in your community to build partnerships that address the educational needs of underserved youth.

Resources for More Information

If you want more information about college access and success for current or former foster youth, or unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness, contact NCHE’s homeless education helpline at homeless@serve.org or 800-308-2145, or register for an upcoming NCHE Paving the Way to College for Youth Experiencing Homelessness webinar at http://nche.ed.gov/web/group.php. Also, check out NCHE’s higher education and scholarship webpages.

Thanks for using your expertise and influence to help young people get where they want to go!