Quenyetta Mitchell reads over college financial aid forms she and her mother filled out at a Get2College drive-up event Thursday in Greenville. Mitchell said she wants to study nursing. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

One of the most important deadlines for college financial aid in Mississippi is right around the corner: On March 31, applications come due for the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students (HELP) grant, the state financial aid program that covers all four years of college tuition for qualifying working-class students.

This is a potentially life-changing opportunity that’s important not to miss, said Stephen Brown, the assistant director of outreach for Get2College, a nonprofit that works to increase the number of students attending college statewide.

High school seniors who meet the income limitations, have a 2.5 or higher GPA and scored at least a 20 on the ACT can apply online via the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid’s website. After completing the online application, prospective college students hoping to be considered for the HELP grant must also submit supporting documents by April 30.

One of these supporting documents is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the cumbersome paperwork required to receive loans and scholarships.

Students must complete the FAFSA in order to be considered for the HELP grant. Yet at 108 questions long, the FAFSA is notoriously intimidating. “It freaks families out,” Brown said. The form’s intimidating reputation can dissuade some families — namely working class, Black and brown families who are most likely to qualify for the HELP grant — from apply for financial aid altogether.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Below, Mississippi Today has compiled a short guide to filing the FAFSA along with some advice from Brown on common errors and frequently asked questions. This is by no means a comprehensive document — there are tons of resources out there to help readers apply for financial aid. Get2College, college financial aid offices and high school guidance counselors are particularly eager to help.

Getting started

Before sitting down to start the FAFSA, Brown said he advises filing students and their parents to make sure they have on-hand the following documents:

  • Personal identification, such as social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and/or permanent resident cards (if applicable)
  • Federal income tax returns, including the 1040 form and schedules, and W2s for each parent that files. The FAFSA uses federal tax returns from the “prior-prior year” — essentially the taxes you filed two years ago. This year’s FAFSA, which is for the upcoming 2021–2022 school year, uses your 2019 tax information.
  • Financial records such as bank statements, investments (excluding retirement savings), and untaxed income, including child support
  • Documents reflecting parent’s marital status
  • Court papers for legal guardianship (if applicable)

The final piece of prep work is to create a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID, which students and parents can do online. This serves as the log-in for studentaid.gov and signature for filling out the FAFSA. Students and parents typically both need to make an FSA ID.

Brown said it’s important not lose, forget, or confuse your FSA ID.

“With the FSA ID, for every family that I work with, not only do I tell them to write the FSA ID down, but I also tell them to take a picture of it, like a screenshot, and email it to themselves,” Brown said. “Keep that in a secure place — somewhere where you can access that electronically in case the paper (copy) gets lost.”

Completing the FAFSA

The FAFSA asks for five main buckets of information: Student demographics, school selection, dependency status, parent demographics, and financial information. Mississippi Today has broken down each of these sections below:

Student demographics

This section asks for the student’s demographic and contact information. Much of it will auto-populate from when the student made an FSA ID.

While this section is relatively straightforward, Brown noted a couple common mistakes:

  • Male students, barring very narrow exceptions, must register for the Selective Service System, the government agency in charge of military conscription, in order to receive federal financial aid.
  • When asked, all students must select “yes” if they are interested in being considered for federal work study. Students will not be considered for work study if they select “I don’t know,” Brown said.
Dependency status

This section contains a list of questions that determine whether a student is dependent or independent for the purposes of the FAFSA. It’s not possible to choose whether to file as a dependent or independent student, Brown noted. Congress has set strict FAFSA-specific criteria for dependency status — even a student that lives on their own, files their own taxes, and financial supports themselves may not be considered independent.

“I often hear families say, ‘Oh well my daughter worked this year and she filed her own taxes so she’s gonna go independent,’” Brown said. “You don’t get to choose to be independent. There are very strict criteria that would make you an independent or dependent student.”

Students who are in a legal guardianship are considered independent students.

Parent demographics

This section asks for demographic and contact information from the student’s parent(s). Only parents of dependent students need to complete this section.

Brown said this can be one of the trickiest sections. He noted a number of common errors, including:

  • The FAFSA requires information from the parent(s) a student lives with the majority of the time. This often confuses parents who are divorced or separated; the parent who the student lives with files the FAFSA, not the one who claims the student on taxes. If parents are divorced but still live together, both need to complete this section.
  • If a student lives with another family member, like a grandparent, but their parents are around, they must still use their parent’s information.

Brown also noted that some parents can be caught off guard that the FAFSA asks whether they attended college. He said that part is only used for demographic information, not to determine how much aid your child will receive.

Financial information

This is where taxes and other financial information come into play. It is dispersed through the student and parent demographics sections.

Rather than enter tax information by hand, Brown encourages families to use the IRS data retrieval tool, which electronically transfers federal tax information from the correct year to the FAFSA form. This makes it a lot easier to fill out the financial information, Brown said.

Don’t panic if the tool doesn’t work, though. Brown said there are a couple main reasons why the tool may not work: If a student or parent still owes money on their taxes, their names were misspelled on their tax forms, if they’ve been the victim of identity theft. If the tool doesn’t work, it does not mean you cannot file the FAFSA — you can still file, but you will have to enter your information manually.

“There’s a big misconception, especially with low income families, if they didn’t file taxes, don’t file taxes, or are on disability that it means they can’t complete the FAFSA,” Brown said. “You absolutely can complete the FAFSA.”

School selection

Students can select to send their FAFSA information to up to 10 colleges. Brown recommends listing at least one college in Mississippi.

FAFSA is signed and submitted. Now what?

All there is to do is wait. Online applications typically take within three to five days to process, while paper ones can take about seven to 10 days, according to the Department of Education.

After the application is processed, students will receive a copy of their Student Aid Report, which lists their Expected Family Contribution and determines eligibility for Pell Grants. This form is also shared with the financial aid offices at the colleges listed on the student’s FAFSA. They will use it to determine how much financial aid they will offer a student.

At this stage, students and parents can also file an appeal with a college’s financial aid office if they’ve noticed an error on the Student Aid Report or are unhappy with the amount of aid they’ve received. Brown encourages families to also appeal if their financial situation has changed drastically due to the pandemic but it’s not reflected on their prior-prior tax returns.

Additional resources

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.