One of the best words in the English language is free. It just makes you feel good to know that you’re getting something valuable for the low price of nothing. Most of the time when we hear of free stuff it’s part of a deal or you have to buy something to get the free item. Federal Student Aid is free. Not free when you pay tuition or free when you submit an application fee, but free anytime.
A lot of people worry about paying for college and they don’t know where to start so they use Google and search for student aid or financial aid. When they click enter, a bevy of results come through telling you that you can pay “as low as $50” or “$5 per month” to receive financial aid. If they’re charging for services you know you’re not using a Federal Student Aid site. Don’t be tricked into paying for something that’s free; you can browse, apply for and receive financial aid without paying a single penny.
The best place to start is by going to the FAFSA website ( The acronym FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (free is even in the name!). You can fill out the FAFSA online or by submitting a paper application. When you fill out the FAFSA, your eligibility for financial aid will be determined by taking the Cost of Attendance (COA) for the college or university and subtracting your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is not the amount of money your family will be expected to supply for your education; it is the number your school will use to calculate the amount of federal student aid you may receive. It will not change no matter what school you choose.
The type of financial aid for which you may qualify may consist of different types of aid; some that you don’t have to repay (grants), others that you do (student loans) and others that where you work part time (Federal Work Study). Your FAFSA will also allow your college or university to begin looking at what type of aid they can offer in the form of campus-based aid. Financial aid is disbursed on a first-come, first-served basis so make sure you know the filing deadlines for your state and college or university. If you wait too long, you may have to scramble to find more money to pay tuition.
Once you finish filling out the FAFSA, you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) which includes a summary of the information from the FAFSA and your EFC. Review the information on the SAR and correct any incorrect information. If you filled out the FAFSA online, you can correct errors online, if you submitted a paper application, contact your school’s financial aid administrator or the Student Financial Aid help desk to ask how you can make corrections. If you submitted the FAFSA online, you will receive your SAR in one to two weeks; if you submitted a paper FAFSA you’ll receive your SAR in four to six weeks. If you don’t receive your SAR within these time periods, contact the federal processor. Your SAR will also include your Data Release Number; you will need this number to apply to additional schools.
Your results will also be sent to the schools to which you’re applying (you’ll specify the schools during the application process).  Each school where you’re accepted will then put together a package of financial aid that includes grants, loans and Federal Work Study to try to meet the Cost of Attendance based on your financial need. If you need to send your SAR to additional schools, you can request copies from the federal processor.
The FAFSA is the first place to start when preparing to pay for college. Remember that the FAFSA is free and you will never have to pay for services from Federal Student Aid. If your financial aid packet includes loans, only borrow the amount you need and that you can handle repaying once you graduate.
Marshall Hamilton is the Manager of External Training and Communications for CornerStone. CornerStone is a non-profit Department of Education servicer that provides outstanding customer service to student borrowers.