What You Don't Know About Financial Aid

college students FAFSA financial aidThis article was originally featured on OnlineDegrees.com

More than 70 percent of young adults don't know what the FAFSA is, according to a recent report by Public Agenda.

Compare that to the National Center for Education Statistics' report that more than 75 percent of full-time college students receive some form of financial aid, and it's clear that a lot of people need a crash course in financial aid. Test your financial aid IQ with our quiz covering five common myths about financial aid.

True or false: You have to be poor -- or smart -- to get financial aid.

False. Financial aid is available based on financial need and academic success, but there are thousands of niche scholarships tailored to geographic areas, sports, extracurricular interests, essay competitions and other specialized criteria.

Two websites published by Mark Kantrowitz offer helpful resources for need-based and merit-based aid: FastWeb.com is a free, scholarship matching service, and FinAid.org is a compendium of financial aid topics.

If you fall through the cracks in terms of qualifying for need-based aid or merit-based aid, you can also apply for low-interest federal student loans or federal parent loans, according to Andrew Gillen, research director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

True or false: Everyone should fill out the FAFSA.

True. The FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is required for federal financial aid. You don't need it for many private scholarships and some school-based forms of financial aid, but the FAFSA remains probably the single most important financial aid document most students will ever fill out. In 2010-2011, more than 21 million FAFSAs were submitted, FinAid.org reported.

The FAFSA is the gateway to a variety of financial aid, including federal government grants, work study and loan programs; state grants; and direct aid from colleges and universities, Kantrowitz said.

"It's important for everybody to file a FAFSA, even if you think you won't qualify," Kantrowitz said. "Parents often underestimate their eligibility to qualify for need-based aid and overestimate their eligibility to get scholarships."

True or false: Part-time students aren't eligible for financial aid.

False. In reality, part-time students do qualify for federal financial aid, but the calculations for this group may look a little different.

Part-time students are more likely to be supporting themselves, and can qualify for more need-based aid because they don't have a family contribution, Gillen said.

At the same time, part-timers may miss out on need-based or merit-based aid because they are more likely to be attending a two-year community college or a for-profit school, Kantrowitz said.

"You're less likely to get grants from the college itself when you're in a community college because they just don't have that much grant funding," Kantrowitz said. "Scholarships are mainly for students at four-year institutions and not for associate degrees or certificates."

True or false: The Expected Family Contribution tells me how much I'll have to pay.

False. The Expected Family Contribution isn't how much a college thinks your family will pay but a measure of your family's financial strength, according to Kantrowitz. The EFC is used to determine your eligibility for federal financial aid, but don't expect your bottom line to match the EFC.

"The amount of money you pay will probably be larger than the expected family contribution," Kantrowitz said.

Need-based aid, for example, doesn't just consist of scholarships but also can entail loans, which must be repaid, he explained.

Students qualifying for federal work study money who don't work the set number of hours, or decide they don't want to work, also would see their expected family contribution increase.

"The bottom line cost for colleges is usually a lot higher than the expected family contribution," Kantrowitz said. "The out-of-pocket costs--the difference between the cost of attendance and grants--leaves you with the amount of money you must earn, save or borrow from savings."

True or false: If your parents are divorced, you may be able to get more aid.


Children of cohabiting gay and lesbian parents may also be able to qualify for more federal need-based aid because the Defense of Marriage Act does not recognize same-sex unions. According to Kantrowitz, same-sex families are placed in the same category as divorced parents, and only one parent's income is counted.

However, there are other instances where the lack of federal recognition of same-sex families could reduce financial aid, because the non-biological or adoptive parent may not be considered a member of the household. Also, siblings who are not biologically related may not count as dependents when evaluating household income, Kantrowitz says.

Whatever your score on our financial aid quiz, you now have some basic information on getting help to complete your college education. Fill out that FAFSA, search for scholarships, and get your education -- and your life -- underway!

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