The cost of a college education has increased exponentially over the past several decades, rendering assistance essential for many students. This is where the FAFSA comes into the picture. You’re likely to see reminders and checklists posted around the school guidance offices in high schools and on college campuses across the country. Why? What does this ubiquitous acronym stand for and how can it help college students from all walks of life?

Alphabet Soup

While you may not have known what the letters in this acronym stand for, chances are you know it has to do with educational financial aid. The free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) is one of the best tools any prospective college student has at their avail. While you should still apply for scholarships and grants that fit your criteria, filling out one of these forms covers several aid bases in one step.

The One Stop Shop

While the free application is often thought only to help assess the fitness of a student for Stafford subsidized and unsubsidized loans, it does much more. There are many aid and grant programs available at the national level, but these are often ineffectively communicated to students. Additionally, states offer students many grant opportunities, but often require a FAFSA to ensure that the individual utilizes their federal options.

This form is also the way in which the department of education determines a student’s level of need. By compiling all vital statistics—from a student’s family contribution to the yearly income of a student, which can include parental income for those under 21—they have a clearer picture of what each student will need to attend and succeed in college.

Beyond federal aid programs, the application serves to put students on the radar of other state level or individual programs. Private lenders and scholarship funds often use applicant forms to help determine need and merit. It allows them to access a broad array of the college-bound population so that they can reach out to them. Financial Aid offices across the country then work to sort and apply any aid offers a student receives to ensure that the cost of their attendance is entirely covered.

More Than Your Test Scores

Many middle-income families assume that the application is only intended for students from less affluent backgrounds. However, this is incorrect. Parents assisting their college-aged children often use their own experience as a reference point for need, even when the numbers no longer compute. As we mentioned above, the cost of attending college, even with resident status, has skyrocketed over the past few decades. That means that the costs are prohibitive, even for students with plenty of family support.

As well, many colleges and universities encourage students to submit this form as a condition of admission. Because financial aid is a relatively constant need for many, students who don’t apply for aid to a college are considered less interested in attending. The offices of admissions at these institutions balance the cost of sending an acceptance packet to students with the perceived desire to study with their institution.

Many students and their parents may feel that the painstaking process of filling out an application for federal student aid isn’t worth the time. They would be wrong. While students are presented with an array of assistance options—ranging from loans to scholarships—they are not under obligation to accept any of them. However, having a FAFSA on file helps students stay abreast of shifting financial challenges during a time of life marked by profound change.