Students who want to receive federal student aid must complete a FAFSA, short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. You'll provide financial information reported on your tax return or your parents' return to determine your eligibility as either a dependent or independent student. The number of dependents in your household will impact your FAFSA status.

Number of Dependents

The U.S. Department of Education provides a questionnaire to help you figure out whether you're independent or dependent. The number of dependents is listed on the FAFSA. You may be considered a dependent if you're under age 24, unmarried and without dependents of your own. Keep in mind that you don't have to live with your parents to qualify as dependent. If you're a dependent, complete your FAFSA using your parents' income and assets. If your parents are divorced, you should use information from the parent who has custody rights. Students who don't meet the dependency requirements complete the FAFSA as independents and use their own financial information.

Cost of Attendance

The cost of attendance, or COA, is the estimated amount it will take to go to college for the school year. It's set by your school and is based on tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, loan fees and other expenses. For non-traditional students there is also an allowance for child care or other dependents.

Expected Family Contribution

Your expected family contribution (EFC), is calculated using your or your parents' household income. Though the term implies otherwise, it doesn't represent the amount you have to pay. The number of people in your family and the number of dependents lowers your EFC. It falls even further if you have siblings in college who are reported as dependents. The EFC is subtracted from the COA to determine if you qualify for federal aid. Think of the EFC as a number that signals how likely you will be to get student loans. The lower the number, the more aid you will receive.

Calculate Your Financial Need

The amount left over after subtracting the EFC from the COA is your financial need. The higher the number, the more financial aid you may receive. Students with the greatest financial need may qualify for Pell Grants, scholarships and unsubsidized student loans. A Pell Grant is money awarded to students with the highest need that does not need to be paid back. Similarly, scholarships do not need to be repaid and are usually awarded based upon talent, skill, or affiliation. Unsubsidized loans will need to be paid, six months after you are out of school.Your school may request supporting documents, such as a tax return, to verify the information in your FAFSA. Keep in mind that your college uses your FAFSA number to determine eligibility for school-based grants and scholarships as well as federal loans.

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