The first step in getting financial aid for college is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). An online version of this application is available on the U.S. Department of Education's website. The FAFSA includes information your family's financial situation and will help determine if you are eligible for the federal Pell grant program. Pell Grants are based on need and unlike student loans do not have to be repaid.
Student Aid Report
After your FAFSA is processed, you will receive a Student Aid Report, which summarizes the information in the FAFSA. The information in the Student Aid Report includes your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), the amount that you or your family is expected to contribute toward your college education. Your college or university will also have your Student Aid Report. Financial aid is based on the EFC and the cost of attendance. Every college and university calculates its own cost of attendance based on such factors as tuition, fees, housing, books and related costs. After subtracting the EFC from the cost of attendance, your school's financial aid office will determine how much need-based assistance, such as Pell grants, you are eligible to receive.
Verification and Notification
After reviewing your Student Aid Report, your school may ask you to verify the information in it. If you are chosen for verification, you will need to submit copies of tax returns and related financial documents. After reviewing the Student Aid Report and, if necessary, verifying the information, your school will send you an award letter that tells you what types of financial aid you are qualified to receive, including grants and student loans. For students who qualify for Pell grants, the amount they can receive in a single academic year ranged from $400 to $4,310 in the 2007-2008 academic year. Federal financial aid, whether grants or loans, is disbursed by your school's financial aid office. The award letter generally assumes full-time enrollment. If you attend school part-time, the amount of financial aid you can receive will change.
Shane Hall is a writer and research analyst with more than 20 years of experience. His work has appeared in "Brookings Papers on Education Policy," "Population and Development" and various Texas newspapers. Hall has a Doctor of Philosophy in political economy and is a former college instructor of economics and political science.