Filing the FAFSA: Graduate School Edition
If you have had practice dealing with financial aid as an undergraduate, then you can at least appreciate the simplicity of filing the FAFSA as a graduate student. Here is what to expect.
Less information required: As a graduate student, you are considered independent. This means the parent tax and asset information is no longer required to complete the FAFSA. You will have to submit any tax and asset information you have personally, but no more parent tax returns.
Special requirements for verification: Verification is when the financial aid office reviews tax documents to confirm that the information is the same as what was put on the FAFSA. If selected for verification, students must submit their own tax returns. However, not all graduate students are employed, so they may have zero income and no tax return filed. If living with parents and not employed, the student will be required to document in-kind support from family. This can be as simple as demonstrating a monthly expense budget covering housing, food, and other expenses and a statement identifying a dollar amount of support given to the student from the family. This is a simple request, but must be processed to maintain eligibility for federal funding.
**FAFSA Tip from Ken: If selected for verification and receiving in-kind support from the family, the financial aid office will expect you to document it. You only need to document basic living expenses as a graduate student to fulfill the verification request. This boils down to being able to demonstrate that you receive at least $8,000 a year in support from someone else (usually parents). Putting down that you receive zero support will not clear the verification requirement. If you list a number much higher than $8,000 per year then eligibility for the subsidized Stafford loan could be jeopardized.
No more free money: The FAFSA provides need-based grants to undergraduate students pursuing their first bachelor's degree. However, there are no need-based grants for graduate level students. This is a big disappointment for former undergraduates that got a lot of financial aid in the past. Graduate students qualify for up to $20,500 in federal Stafford loans. Of that amount, up to $8,500 can be subsidized and $12,000 can be unsubsidized. The subsidized loan amount is determined by financial need, so some students will only qualify for $20,500 in unsubsidized Stafford loans.
Deadlines are not so critical: As an undergraduate, filing the FAFSA on time meant everything for eligibility. This means filing the FAFSA as early as Feb. 15 each year. However, for graduate students, the FAFSA can be filed sometime in the summer when you can get it done. No need-based money will be lost if filed a little later.
Ken O'Connor is a financial aid expert and the director of student advocacy at cuStudentLoans.org. Learn more about credit union private student loans and college planning by visiting his blog.
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