Filing the FAFSA online has recently been made easier.  You can initially print out worksheets and write down your answers, then return to the computer to enter them.  Help is provided on the right side of the screen to clarify questions and assist you in providing the correct answers. You can also stop midway and save your work, only to complete it later.  By applying for a Personal Identification Number (PIN), you and your parent(s) can electronically sign the FAFSA and log back in to review your information at a later date.

You cannot submit the FAFSA until January 1, but you should do so as soon thereafter as possible. Provide estimates if your taxes are not complete and then complete your taxes at the earliest possible opportunity - you'll need to go back and update your FAFSA information at that point. Visit www.fafsa.gov to find out more. English and Spanish versions of the FAFSA are available.

What is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) gathers information about your family and finances. It looks at things such as income, assets, number in family, number in college, age of older parent (in order to protect assets), taxes in your home state and more. After you submit the FAFSA, you get a Student Aid Report (SAR) emailed to you and copies are sent to colleges you listed on the form. The SAR tells you what your federal "expected family contribution" (EFC) is - a reasonable expectation of what any family with similar circumstances should be able to put towards the cost of education, regardless of what school you choose to attend. Keep in mind that it is supposed to be reasonable, not necessarily a reflection of what your family may have in ready cash. The formula used to derive this estimate does not take most debt into account nor some other factors that are generally considered discretionary, such as a second home, a private high school education, etc.

Be aware that the EFC can change from year to year since you must file the FAFSA with new information on an annual basis. Changes may be small or large, depending on family finances and circumstances and may move in either direction. For example, if two children are in college one year, each with a separate EFC, and the following year only one is in college, then that student's EFC may virtually double since family resources are now all directed towards one child instead of two. In this scenario, the individual student's financial need would likely decrease as would eligibility for need-based aid. However, the family's contribution to higher education would be about the same as the previous year if all else was equal; it is just that the money would go towards one student's expenses rather than two. Obviously, income, assets and other variables do come into play, but this is important in understanding how need-based aid is calculated in principle.

In addition to the FAFSA, you must fill out COA's institutional form, along with a noncustodial parent form, if applicable.  These forms collect additional information about your family finances and are used to determine if you qualify for institutional funds.