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The FAFSA is Just the Beginning: Tips on the SAR and Unmet Need

Update, March 2016: If you or a family member are attending college in 2016-17, take a few minutes to review what you can expect after your FAFSA is filed. Planning ahead for 2017-18? Don’t forget that your FAFSA will be available this October instead of next January!
 
It’s prime time for FAFSA completion, and that means your student is well on their way in the financial aid process. Once your son or daughter files his or her FAFSA, the next document to watch out for is their
Student Aid Report (SAR)
. It’s a crucial document that college and university financial aid offices use to determine eligibility for federal student aid. The document can be lengthy – but don’t be intimidated! Here are five tips to help your family break down the report:

Have your student add Federal Student Aid as an email contact. If your student filed their FAFSA and included an email address, the SAR will be delivered electronically from FederalStudentAidFAFSA@cpsemail.ed.gov. It may be worth reminding your student to add this email address as a contact in their address book. This lessens the chance of an important message from Federal Student Aid being marked as spam and missing their inbox.iStock_000002994423Medium

Be patient. The SAR won’t come immediately; expect to wait anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. FAFSAs that are filed electronically with a PIN result in the shortest turnaround: about 3-5 days. FAFSAs that are submitted via snail mail with no email address included will likely arrive in about 3 weeks.

Read it carefully. The SAR will include a summary of information provided on your student’s FAFSA. Review it with them to make sure there aren’t any glaring mistakes. If there is a mistake on your student’s SAR, your student can correct it online – the easiest and fastest option – or on paper. Your student’s school might be able to make changes electronically, too. In these cases, your son or daughter should reach out to the school’s financial aid office for more information.

Know the numbers. The SAR’s most notable number is the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) – the amount of money that your family is expected to contribute to your child’s education. Financial aid offices will use this figure to calculate how much aid your student would receive if he or she attended that school. The lower the EFC, the more financial aid they’re likely to qualify for. (If you or your student want to give a college access to change FAFSA information, look for the Data Release Number (DRN), a four-digit reference number found below the Expected Family Contribution box of the electronic version, or in the top right corner of the paper version.)

Wondering why the EFC number seems higher than you thought? Here’s a good explanation from FinAid:

“You may find your EFC figure to be painfully high. This often occurs because the need analysis formulas are heavily weighted toward current income. In addition, the formulas consider your income and assets without taking many common forms of consumer debt into account, such as credit card balances and auto loans. Finally, student income and assets can add significantly to the EFC figure.”

Once the EFC – along with scholarships, grants and other “free money” – is taken into account, it’s possible that there will be a gap between the cost of college and what your child can actually afford to pay. This unmet need is a big factor in why students take out federal and private loans (we warn about the dizzying levels of U.S. student loan debt here) – and why there’s a high level of indebtedness once a student finishes their degree. Scholarships can help fill this gap!

Encourage scholarship applications. The SAR helps in creating a full financial aid package offered by a college, but that award letter won’t come until the school is ready to offer admission, often in the springtime to prepare for fall enrollment. (We covered interpreting a financial aid letter in this post.) It’s also possible that, once that award letter arrives, it won’t provide 100 percent funding. Consequently, it’s worth reminding your kids that there is free money out there in the form of grants – especially if your family demonstrates financial need – and scholarships on a national and local level. For starters, here’s a list of five things parents can do to help their students search for scholarships.

Federal Student Aid’s website provides comprehensive information on federal aid, and a wealth of resources for parents to help prepare their kids for college. The Scholarship America website also lists tried-and-true tips on how to make the most of the scholarship search and application process. It’s not too late for your kids to start making a difference in their higher education success now.

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