Student guide to the FAFSA

Drew Howard

For new and returning Grand Valley State University students trying to figure out how to pay for everyday expenses such as books, rent and college courses, the term “FAFSA” has probably been thrown around more than once. If this term is still a bit confusing, look below for a quick guide to what the FAFSA is, why it’s important and helpful tips for filling it out.


FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The application is a form that assesses a student’s eligibility for financial aid. If a student qualifies for aid, the FAFSA form opens up a new range of programs and scholarships that can help a student in pursuing a college education.

Jenna Poll, associate director of financial aid, described the FAFSA as “an application to all the financial opportunities out there.”


Everyone who fills out the FAFSA is eligible for a federal loan from the government. A federal loan is technically financial aid, but since it is a loan, it needs to be paid back.

Eligibility for financial aid that does not need to be paid back is based on a variety of factors such as income, parent dependency, type of student, age, tax returns, size of family and more.

There’s not a simple answer to who receives financial aid because the FAFSA takes in a wide assortment of information to fit each student individually. While there are clear indicators for who will most likely qualify, there’s not one model that fits every student. The amount of financial aid is calculated through a combination of all factors considered.

“It’s difficult to give a standard,” said Daniel Shannahan, assistant director of financial aid. “A family with an income of $70,000 with one parent and one student would be a very different level of financial aid compared to a family with an income of $70,000 dollars with two working parents, four kids with two of whom are attending school.”


“You can file it through Jan. 2016, but the priority deadline that Michigan has in place is March 1,” Poll said. “You can use estimated information and then go back online and update your tax information if you get your tax information filed after March 1.”

Not every form of financial aid uses the same deadline, but a student will set themselves up for more opportunities if they fill it out by March 1.


The FAFSA form can be found online for free at

For assistance in filling out the form, the GVSU financial aid office provides computers at the front desk where students can fill out the form with the help of faculty in the office.

Students can also call the financial aid office from home for help on any problems they might encounter.

Additionally, the College Goal Sunday event provides stations all across the country that are purposed with assisting students in filling out the FAFSA. Staff from the GVSU financial aid office will be volunteering with College Goal Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Feb. 8 in Building A of the DeVos Center.


Shannahan said one of the most confusing parts of the FAFSA to students is the issue of independence versus dependence.

“Quite often, we will have students telling us they need to file independent because they don’t live with their parents and claim themselves on their taxes,” Shannahan said. “FAFSA has very specific yes or no questions that determine dependency.”

Even if a student is completely independent from their parents, they are still regarded as dependent unless they can answer yes to some specific questions provided on the FAFSA.

Poll said students tend to think they will automatically have a loan if they fill out the FAFSA.

“Although the FAFSA is an application for a federal loan, it’s not signing up you up right then and there for a loan,” Poll said. “I think that can be seen as a misconception.”

Also, Poll warned against filling out a FAFSA form online that requests a fee. If the FAFSA is asking for money, then it’s not the right one.


“We always recommend filing the FAFSA,” Poll said. “If students are seeking additional assistance, our first recommendation is filling out the FAFSA. There are so many opportunities for students who fill out a FAFSA that they may not even realize, and there’s no requirement once you fill it out to borrow loans.”

For more information, contact the financial aid office at 616-331-3234 or [email protected].