What is the FAFSA?
Many parents of college-bound students feel anxious when completing financial aid forms, specifically the FAFSA. This is the form families submit to apply for federal financial aid. It is used by the federal government, states, and colleges to award grants, work-study programs, and loans. Completing the FAFSA forms is required in order to get the expected family contribution number or EFC. The EFC number is generated after inputting your personal financial information into the FAFSA form. The process does require some detailed financial organization, but there is a lot of helpful information available to aid in this calculation. A good start would be to go to the government websites, FAFSA, Student Aid or check out the blog section on the PayForED website.
Expected Family Contribution
Many people mistakenly believe the EFC is one number. The actual calculation is really four separate numbers that are summed together: parents’ income, parents’ assets, student’s income, and student’s assets. Each of these components has separate rules and allowances.
A family will get their official EFC by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. This process only provides you with one number and does not break out the four separate numbers. You need to understand the four quadrants of the EFC calculation to create a proper college-funding strategy.
The Department of Education provides your expected family contribution through two methods. The actual FAFSA process gives the family their EFC number after completing the form, while the FAFSA4caster is an estimate of your EFC number. Currently, neither of the government sources provides the four quadrant details of the EFC calculation.
Another place you can get your EFC number is on our PayForED website. Our website has a free simple EFC estimator for families to use. Families can also use the PayForED College Cost Analyzer tool which has more detailed EFC calculator and provides a FAFSA answer key.
FAFSA is Federal Methodology
The FAFSA process is also called the federal methodology. Any college or postsecondary education program that receives federal funds will require the student and family to submit a FAFSA form. This form has to be completed in order for the student to qualify for any federal financial aid. The exception to this rule is merit aid, which can be granted without any financial aid forms submitted.
Some colleges require a second financial aid process called the institutional methods. The most common of these methods is the CSS Profile managed by College Board. Generally, colleges that use a secondary process have a significant endowment that they are trying to distribute to their targeted applicants. The institutional methods will ask additional questions beyond the FAFSA, and there is often a fee to use these methods.
One of the biggest differences between the federal and institutional methodologies is how the colleges recognize the EFC numbers. The FAFSA federal methodology value will be a fixed number at every school. The institutional method value will vary from college to college based on how each college develops its calculation. Most schools will not disclose your institutional number to you. This goes back to how schools use an admissions matrix to select their students and plan their revenue stream for the upcoming year. Remember, the matrix includes how much money you need and, indirectly, your ability to pay.
There is a great deal of confusion between the two methods. An important part of creating your funding strategy is determining your college list. If the colleges on your list do not include a CSS Profile school, you will not need to worry about completing the additional forms.
In general, the more competitive colleges use an institutional process. Over the past few years, the difference between the two methodologies has lessened. Listed in the table below are the major calculation differences between the federal and institutional methods.
Classification of the Applicant
The majority of college-bound students will apply for financial aid as dependent students. This means students receive 50 percent of their living expenses through the support of a parent or guardian. These rules are very similar to the IRS rules when determining filing status of your taxes.
To qualify as an independent student, you must meet at least one of the following conditions:
- Be twenty-four years or older
- Be married
- At the beginning of the coming school year, be working on a master’s or doctorate degree program (such as an MA, MBA, MD, JD, PhD, EdD, graduate certificate, etc.)
- Be currently serving on active duty in the US armed forces for purposes other than training (if you are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee, you must be on active duty for other than state or training purposes)
- Be a veteran of the US armed forces
- Have—or will have—children who will receive more than half of their support from you prior to the application year you are applying for
- Have dependents (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you, now and through the upcoming year
- At any time since you turned thirteen, both your parents were deceased, you were in foster care, or you were a dependent or ward of the court
- It has been decided by a court in your state of legal residence that you are an emancipated minor or that you are in a legal guardianship
- At any time on or after July 1 of the previous year, you were determined to be an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless, as determined by a) your high school or district homeless liaison, b) the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, or c) the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program
Source: Department of Education
The advantage of being an independent student is that the EFC will normally be lower. A lower EFC will provide increased financial aid for the student in most cases. An independent student will also get an increase in Federal Direct loan limits—this means an additional $4,000 of direct unsubsidized loans per year.
The independent student will not have the parents’ quadrants to complete on the FAFSA form. As a result, the parents’ assets and income will not be part of the EFC calculation. This could be an advantage.
In the past, some students tried to establish themselves as independent when they weren’t. The rules are very strict now, and with the IRS link, it is almost impossible to achieve an independent classification without one of the requirements listed above.
EFC Four Components
Now let’s dive into the EFC components so you can better understand the major parts of the EFC calculation.
The first component is the parents’ income; for most applicants, this will be the largest number of the EFC. It is based on the family’s structure, the number of dependents, adjusted gross income, and state of residence. These terms are very similar to your federal tax terms, as the two systems are now linked together.
The parent income section of the calculation is progressive. As the family’s Adjusted Gross Income increases, a higher percentage of the multiplier is put to that number. This will result in the EFC increasing more quickly.
Under the FAFSA or federal method, in the years for which you apply for financial aid, any deferred compensation (e.g., 401K, 403b, and IRA contributions) gets added back in as income for financial aid purposes. For the income calculation of EFC, the value of the retirement account is not included. Only the employee’s contribution is included. It still goes into the tax-deferred account. This is also true for the institutional method, but the retirement account value will be included in the asset section of that calculation. This information appears on the person’s W2 or 1040 form.
For the parents’ asset calculation, nonretirement assets are all included. Small farms, small family businesses, and your home equity are also excluded. There is an allowance amount based on the tax-filing status and the age of the oldest FAFSA-filing parent. The asset amount that exceeds the allocation amount will be multiplied by 5.64 percent to arrive at the parent asset calculated amount.
For dependent student income, the rules are very simple. Since dependent students are included on another person’s tax return, their income allowances are limited by the state they reside in and the federal income exception amount. Amounts over the allowances are weighted at 50 percent.
For the student asset section, there are no allowances, and assets are weighted at 20 percent. This is why many people think it’s a good idea to get assets out of the student’s name. People compare the student percentage of 20 percent to the parents’ percentage of 5.64 percent and disregard the cost of attendance as part of their decision. This is a common error.
Be careful when liquidating student assets. The first issue is the tax consequence of liquidating assets. For dependent college students up to the age of twenty-four, if there is a taxable gain from the sale of assets, the “kiddie tax” rules will apply. This means the first $2,200 (2019 limit) of unearned income will be tax-free, and any amount over that will be taxed at the parents’ rate. The kiddie tax limits change periodically based on the tax code. Depending on the amount of gain, a very high tax rate could be charged due to the parents’ income level.
The next issue is ownership of the account or asset. If the primary social security number on the account is the student’s, then it is legally their money. Legally this money must be spent on the student’s behalf. You need to have documentation to properly liquidate a Uniform Gift to Minor Account (UGMA account), which is the type of account issued to most children under the age of eighteen.
FAFSA Timing Is Important
There are two important aspects of maximizing your financial aid award: The first is the timing of the financial decision for the FAFSA reporting, and the second is the impact of other siblings.
The FAFSA form becomes available on October 1 of each year and will be used for financial aid packages for students. As stated above, the information used to complete the FAFSA form is based on the prior year’s tax return.
The tax year and school year do not match. As an example, for entering college freshmen, the school years that will be used to complete the FAFSA are their second semester of junior year and their first semester of senior year of high school. With that understood, the best time to review your financial aid position is the tax year when your child is a second-semester sophomore and first-semester junior in high school.
It is also important to take into consideration when other siblings will be in college at the same time. The total EFC will be divided by the number of children in college. So if you have two in college, your EFC will be divided by two. Again, this is where a more expensive school may become affordable due to the change in EFC. This is why a four-year cash flow can help you determine the best college value analysis.
Having a better understanding of your EFC will allow you to make a better paying for college strategy. Doing a four-year cash analysis helps families project their total financial cost of college. Currently, most schools will only give you a one-year projection.
What is Prior Prior?
Starting October 1, 2016, a new method of submitting the FAFSA started. This change was called the Prior Prior FAFSA. Under the Prior Prior FAFSA process, the EFC or Expected Family Contribution income numbers are based on the tax year two years prior to submission. In most cases, due to the Prior Prior FAFSA, families are able to use the data retrieval tool (DRT) to download their income numbers from the IRS system. This reduces the confusion on which tax information that needs to be included in the FAFSA submission. Families are able to get their EFC income number on October 1 of their senior year of high school. The student and parent will still need to input their assets but it makes the federal or FAFSA method easier.
As an example, the graduating high school class of 2020 will be using the 2018 taxes to complete the FAFSA. This is the reason why it is called Prior Prior. Due to this change, parents of younger students will need to move forward their financial positioning analysis. The best time to review a family’s financial aid positioning will be the tax year before the student’s 12/31 sophomore year in high school.
It does simplify some of the confusion regarding the income section of the FAFSA. Now families are able to use the DRT system to populate sections of the FAFSA.
Creating a Federal Student Identification or FSA ID
Before you start your FAFSA, the student and at least one parent must create their FSA ID. The FSA ID is the acronym for Federal Student Aid Identification and is the login and electronic signature process used by the Department of Education. The FSA ID replaced the FAFSA Pin on May 10th, 2015. For students, parents, and borrowers, the FSA ID will be the electronic method used to apply for federal student aid and access any federal student aid records online. This login process authenticates the user and allows them to access the following websites or processes:
- FAFSA on the Web
- NSLDS® Student Access
- TEACH Grant
The FSA ID login process improves security since you create a user-selected username and password. The person will enter less information with this single sign-on process. The FSA ID eliminates the need for people to enter personal identifiers such as Social Security, name and date of birth each time they want to login. The FSA ID gives people a lifetime ID. The FSA ID is a similar process to most other secure login systems used for your banking and credit cards.
To establish the FSA ID go to:
Who can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool?
The IRS data retrieval tool (DRT) is available to parents who have completed a personal income tax submission with the IRS using the IRS form 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ. This online DRT is able to transfer the tax-return information directly onto the FAFSA form. Using this tool is the easiest way to provide your tax information to the school.
This tool updates the FAFSA information with the actual tax information that you have submitted to the IRS. It provides the actual income information to the school’s financial aid office and prevents fraud. This method eliminates the need to send copies of your tax returns to the college. Colleges that require the CSS Profile will still require you to submit various tax returns for multiple years. It is an important step in the verification process for the colleges in the financial aid process.
For some people, the DRT will not be available. This would include people with complicated tax returns, those who are still on extensions and anyone who had submitted an amended return for the tax year needed. If you are in that situation, you should contact the college to ask what information is required to complete the FAFSA verification. Many will require your tax transcript which is another IRS process that is more time-consuming.
When and how you submit your taxes will impact when the information is available through the IRS system. It normally takes two to six weeks after the taxes are submitted before it is available to the DRT system. If you are on a payment plan or have a tax bill outstanding, your tax information will not be available for the DRT process.
To use the DRT tool, you need to enter through the online FAFSA form.
- The taxpayer must have filed a current tax return
- Electronic submission method will provide better availability
- The taxpayer must have a valid Social Security number (SSN)
- The taxpayer must have signed up and created a federal student aid identification or FSA ID
- Taxpayer’s address and the name must exactly match those on the IRS Tax form
There are certain situations where the IRS DRT will not be available to be used for the FAFSA verification. They are as follows:
- The taxpayer is submitting an amended tax return
- The taxpayer is submitting for an extension
- Once submitted, the verification will be done and the award will be reevaluated
- Taxpayer did not need to file a federal tax return
- Taxpayer filed a Puerto Rico or foreign income tax return
If the school wants verification of your taxes but you are unable to use the IRS DRT, you can get an official transcript form from the Internal Revenue Service. Go to www.irs.gov to find information and the form. It is always important to check with your school’s financial aid department to make sure all your information has been received according to the deadlines listed.
The Student Aid Report (SAR) is the confirmation report that is generated after the FAFSA is submitted. It is the information that will be sent to the colleges. Normally it is available 2 – 5 days after the FAFSA is submitted. It is highly recommended that you review this report to confirm your submitted information.
This is also a big difference between the FAFSA and Institutional financial aid methods. The SAR confirms your information and generates the Expected Family Contribution or EFC. The Federal EFC is the same number at every college. The Institutional EFC will vary by college and is often not disclosed to the student and family.
The Department of Education has tried to simplify and improve the customer experience for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. The new FAFSA development for the school year 2019-2020 is that the parent and student are able to submit their FAFSA on their phones. The FAFSA has an App which is called myStudentAid and it is available for both iOS and Android devices.
Features of the FAFSA App
One great feature of the FAFSA App is that it was designed with both student and parents in mind. The App has the person click whether he or she is the parent, the student, or the preparer. Questions are customized based on the person identified by the login. The new FAFSA app allows students to begin answering questions on their phones and then parents can continue completing the FAFSA either on their phone or a desktop. For a parent whose child has already begun the application, when you begin the process you carefully pick the button labeled “Continue” instead of “Start Over.” The “Start Over” button will erase any work already inputted by either student or parent.
The FAFSA App also uses “skip logic” when an individual is answering questions so that the form can be completed quicker. This process improves the experience and means the students/parents can bypass any FAFSA questions that do not apply to their family.
Signing the FAFSA using FAFSA App
When completing the FAFSA both the dependent student and one parent need to sign the FAFSA. When using the FAFSA app both the student and the parent need to log in, individually and sign the form under each of their own FSA IDs. Make sure the application is complete because it will not be processed unless both student and the one parent click the signature submitted.
DRT Availability Using the FAFSA App
In the beta for the FAFSA App, the DRT Retrieval tool was not available. Unfortunately, it appears that the FAFSA App will not have DRT functionality for the FAFSA year 2018-2019. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool or IRS DRT electronically transfer your federal tax return information into the FAFSA form. The DRT is an important step in the final FAFSA submission process since it verifies that the FAFSA information matched the IRS information. The college financial aid offices need this verification to issue federal financial aid. It is planned to be available next year and we will update you when the information is available.
Who Should complete the FAFSA?
The FAFSA should be completed by every family even if you do not think you will qualify for financial aid. Completing the FAFSA allows the family to structure their student loans better, show the college your ability to pay and qualify for need-based financial aid. It is the only way a family and student can be eligible for federal loans.
It can also be part of a paying for college strategy if your child is thinking of going to post-graduate school as undergraduate loans have a lower interest rate than graduate loans. It just takes planning!