The previous Financial Friday covered the topic of minimizing the amount of money you borrow. An overarching theme from that edition was working with the amount of aid you are given. But just how is that amount decided? If you’ve been a student here since orientation week or longer, you’ve probably already filled out the most important form in making that decision — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA makes the biggest impact on the amount of financial aid you receive from Pitt. You may not know everything about what the FAFSA helps decide, how often you must update it, and the changes that have been implemented for this year’s FAFSA process. As always, Financial Friday is here to inform and help.
The U.S. Department of Education made two changes to the FAFSA process, making it easier on students and their families. First, the FAFSA will become available on Oct. 1 of this year. In past years, the FAFSA wouldn’t have become available until January. Despite the FAFSA being available earlier, Pitt’s recommended deadline has remained constant at March 1, giving students ample time to send theirs in. Secondly, students must use their family’s income and tax information from two years prior to fill out the FAFSA. This means to determine financial need for the 2017-18 school year, students use information from 2015. This change is meant to make filling out FAFSA easier, since those taxes have already been completed. If this change had not been implemented, students would’ve had to use information from 2016, prior to the end of the tax year. These changes allow students to finish their FASFA earlier in the year without having to make revisions later. In short, these changes are fairly simple, and are meant to make the lives of students easier.
The FAFSA contains information about a family’s income and tax burden, and is reviewed by universities to calculate a student’s expected family contribution, which is an estimate of how much a student or a student’s family would contribute to his or her college education, thereby determining their level of need. This all goes into a common formula: cost of attendance, minus EFC, equals the financial need amount. Various factors are considered in determining EFC, such as taxed and untaxed income, assets, benefits, family size and number of dependents attending college simultaneously.
FASFA is arguably the most widely used and important tool in deciding financial need. While Pitt does not require a FAFSA in order to review a student for scholarships, many schools won’t even consider you for scholarships — regardless of whether they are need or merit based — unless they receive a FASFA, and this all-important form is not reviewed exclusively by college financial aid officers. The Federal Department of Education uses it to determine what to award for its common financial aid programs, such as Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, Direct Subsidized Loan, Perkins Loan and Work Study. Additionally, the FAFSA is used to review eligibility for the Pennsylvania State Grant, for which the deadline is May 1.
For current students, the most important thing to remember is that you must fill out an updated FAFSA every year in order to continue receiving financial aid. In order to keep most financial aid, students have to be vigilant in keeping track of deadlines, and making sure they provide correct information.
“Financial aid is fluid. Keeping up with the changes is sometimes difficult,” said Janet McLaughlin, associate director of financial aid at Pitt.
If students do have trouble navigating issues associated with FAFSA, Pitt’s financial office is there to help. Its website — oafa.pitt.edu — provides links to the federal agencies associated with the process. It also provides checklists and timelines, to help students get organized. The office also offers access to financial aid counselors, who are available in person, by phone and by email — so don’t be afraid to utilize the resources you have. Ensuring you make deadlines and provide correct information on your FAFSA is vitally important to lowering the cost of your education, so you should use every resource you can to get it correct.