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Being a first-generation college student is a huge opportunity to become the first person in your family to earn a college degree.
It's no small feat for first-generation students who face a tougher uphill battle than students whose parents hold degrees. First-generation students face higher dropout rates and take longer to graduate.
Three years after first enrolling, one-third of a cohort of first-generation college students who started college in 2003-04 left without earning a degree, compared with 14% of students whose parents held a bachelor's degree, according to a February 2018 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.
And you have one hurdle to face before you even get to campus: Getting financial aid. To do that you'll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. It's the key to accessing need-based aid like federal grants, scholarships and work-study, as well as federal student loans.
The FAFSA can be challenging for all families filling it out for the first time, but for first-gen students it may be even more overwhelming and intimidating — and that can have a major impact on their financial aid.
In the 2015-16 school year, dependent students whose parents had a high school diploma or below received an average of $3,900 less in total aid than students whose parents had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to a study released in 2019 by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Going into the FAFSA without any background knowledge can put you at a disadvantage, but filling it out is not an impossible task. Here are our top tips to complete the FAFSA as a first-generation college student.
Start your FAFSA ASAP
Since many first-generation college students don’t have access to the same resources as other students — like a parent who has been through the process before — it’s vital to give yourself enough time to complete the FAFSA. Sarah Place, national managing director of programs at Bottom Line, a nonprofit company that focuses on helping first-generation and low-income students get into and succeed in college, says: “There’s a knowledge gap. ... [They] just don’t know what the college application process is like.”
That means it can take first-gen students longer to complete the FAFSA than those with more experience with it, as Khalil Johnson, a Pitzer College graduate and former blogger at I’m First, an online community for first-gen students, found when he filled out his first FAFSA.
“It was about a month-and-a-half-long process to fill it out; it did not go quickly at all,” says Johnson, who noted that he spent most of that time clarifying what each question asked for.
The FAFSA also has varying state and school deadlines. For example, your state deadline might fall after an institution’s deadline.
» MORE: When is the FAFSA deadline?
“Make sure that you’re keeping track of each school and each deadline," Place says, "because when it comes to financial aid and missing a deadline, there can be major consequences, even missing the deadline by one day.”
Use the IRS data retrieval tool
With 108 questions on the FAFSA, the hardest part will probably be figuring out what each question is asking for, especially when it comes to questions related to taxes.
“It was incredibly intimidating, because at that point nobody had ever covered taxes with me,” says Rhina Lara, a former first-generation student at the University of Florida where she was director of H1G, a mentoring program for first-generation honors students.
However, if you’re eligible to use the IRS data retrieval tool, the FAFSA gets a lot less complicated. It pulls information from your tax returns directly to your application.
The FAFSA opens on Oct. 1, 2019, for the 2020-21 school year, so you’ll be using tax information from the year before (2018) to fill it out initially. This will result in an estimate of your aid, but you can update it after you file your tax return. Your updated information will be available within three weeks if you filed electronically or within 11 weeks if you filed on paper. Ask your parents to file electronically to speed up the process.
Get your FSA ID before you start the FAFSA
Your FSA ID is the username and password you’ll be using if you complete the FAFSA online, and it follows you across all Federal Student Aid services. You’ll need your Social Security number, and it takes the Social Security Administration one to three days to process your info if you’re new to the system, so creating an ID before you start your application will help cut down on processing time.
Gather your documents
Use this FAFSA checklist to keep track of all the documents and information you’ll need before you start. If you're a dependent student you'll need these documents from your parents, as well. The FAFSA does not ask about your parents’ citizenship status. This includes you and your parent's:
FSA ID number.
Social Security Number. If you’re not a U.S. citizen and you don’t have an SSN, be sure to include your alien registration number along with your application. If a parent doesn’t have an SSN, input 000-00-0000.
Your driver’s license number if you have one.
Federal tax information or returns from the previous year. (Be sure to mark “will file” on your application. You can correct the information once you get your latest tax returns.)
For a U.S. tax return, this will be an IRS 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ form (include all W-2s as well).
For a foreign tax return (or for a tax return from one of the U.S. territories), include everything.
Current bank account balance records.
Untaxed income records (such as child support, interest income and veterans noneducation benefits).
You’ll also have to include at least one targeted school when you first fill out the FAFSA; you can send it to more schools later on. If you go that route, though, you might miss out on first-come-first-served aid like the Pell Grant and work-study, so it’s best to include all schools you’re interested in attending (up to 10). Use the federal school code search tool to add schools to your application.
Talk to your parents about their finances
First-generation students and their parents may lack experience with the financial aid process, but that doesn’t mean you should go it alone if you can help it. Get on the same page with your parents and get a realistic idea of your finances. It can be a touchy subject, but the result (aka your estimated family contribution, the amount the government estimates your family can afford to pay out-of-pocket) affects them too, especially if they end up taking out a Parent PLUS loan to finance your education. Johnson found the support from his mother to be especially comforting.
“My mom was really hands-on. She had no idea what she was doing, but she was not afraid to ask,” he says.
You should ask for basic information you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA such as, “What’s your gross annual income?” and “Do you receive any external income like child support or government assistance?” But you should also ask questions about how you’ll pay for school. For example:
How much do you think we can afford to pay out-of-pocket per year?
Who is responsible for financing my education? What is a good ratio of financial responsibility? For some, it’s a 50-50 split between the parent and student. For others, it’s necessary to leave it up to the student to pay for college.
Do I have a 529 savings account? Do we have other savings that we will be using to finance my education?
Do you expect our financial situation to change over the next four years? This includes changes such as getting a raise (especially if it pushes your parents into another federal tax bracket), having a child or changing jobs. If your parents’ income isn’t reliable, for example if they freelance or they’re looking to switch careers, you should be aware that your FAFSA results (and, by extension, your financial aid package) may vary greatly from year to year.
Your parents may have no frame of reference for talking about financial aid, the FAFSA or student loans, but involving them in the process will help you take control of your financial future.
Where to get help
The questions on the FAFSA aren’t always clear-cut, so reaching out for guidance and support is extremely important for first-gen students. Where can you go for help? Place suggests calling the Federal Student Aid information center at 800-4FED-AID (800-433-3243).
“They’re actually pretty helpful, and they usually pick up the phone pretty quickly,” Place says, adding that students shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions that may seem obvious.
There are other places first-gen students can go for help, too. Your high school guidance counselor can also offer assistance with navigating your financial aid applications.
» MORE: Your FAFSA questions answered
Lara, the first-gen student from the University of Florida, suggests leaning on local students and families who’ve already filled out the FAFSA as another source of support.
“Reaching out to other students, especially those who have done it already, that’s really your best bet," Lara says. "Living in Miami, a lot of my friends were also first-gen, but talking to students who’d already done it was really helpful. They were the ones who knew exactly what to tell me."
What to do after you submit
Once you’ve submitted your FAFSA, you’re in the home stretch, but you’re not over the finish line yet.
Follow up with each school to make sure it has received your documents. If you don’t see confirmation within the first two weeks, send the financial aid office an email.
If you get your Student Aid Report back and your estimated family contribution seems too high, you can submit additional documents to have it adjusted for your circumstances.
Remember, the federal student aid process doesn’t end after you click “submit.” The FAFSA needs to be filled out every year you’re in school.