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Elizabeth SolazzoFinancial Aid for the Returning Student

by Elizabeth Solazzo

It can be difficult enough to make the decision to return to school without having to worry about how you will finance your education. But that is an all too real concern for many people. The maze that makes up student financial aid can often be just another stumbling block for the returning student to confront. But it need not be if you are willing to invest your time reading and asking questions to become informed about the process.

The first step in applying for student financial aid at most schools usually involves filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form is available at all colleges who participate in the Federal Title IV aid program and most public libraries. Students are sometimes intimidated by the four page federal application. Others compare it to the dreaded IRS tax forms. But actually, if you spend the time to look at it closely, it is just a series of questions. You will know most of the answers right away. Other information, like last year's income, may be obtained from your 1040 tax form. Viewed in this way, it is much less scary. There are also many sources of assistance available to you. The school you intend to enroll in may have workshops to offer individual help or certainly would be willing to answer a question or two. The government contractors processing the federal applications have a toll-free number you can call for assistance and it is printed right on the form. There are also some instructions included with the application.

You may file the paper FAFSA by mailing it in the attached envelope. Check with your college as they may prefer to file it electronically for you. You may also file the FAFSA electronically yourself over the Internet. This is a fast and easy way to file. The Web based program has some edits to catch mistakes and offers help along the way. It also allows for a quicker response time.

Whichever way you decide to file the form, you should never need to pay anyone to assist you. If you are offered assistance for a fee, refuse the help and immediately contact your school and the federal government to report on these activities so proper criminal action can be taken.

After the application has been processed you will receive back in the mail a form called the Student Aid Report (SAR). This form will provide information about your eligibility status, your estimated EFC (Expected Family Contribution) and a list of your submitted answers for you to review and make any necessary corrections.

The next step is to check with the school you plan to attend about other forms or documentation you need to submit. Each school has its own procedures. There may be an institutional financial aid application to submit. You may be required to supply tax forms or other documents. It is important to meet all deadlines of the Financial Aid office. It is also important to meet all deadlines in the admissions process. It is possible to delay your financial aid because of glitches in the admissions and acceptance process or missed deadlines. File your FAFSA as early as possible beginning January 1st and before early March for best eligibility.

After all forms are filed, you should get an award letter from your school. It is very important to read the entire letter and any enclosures and make sure you understand the terms of your award. Know the difference between grants and scholarships and loans.

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