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Understanding Your Financial Aid Offer part 2: What to know when filling out the FAFSA®

During the second episode in this series, we met with Fred Stennis, Supervisor and Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, to talk about what to know before, during and after completing the FAFSA®. This episode also covered tips and best practices for using federal financial aid to complete your higher education goals.

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Episode transcript


Fred Stennis
Supervisor and Senior Advisor, Office of Federal Student Aid Awareness and Outreach Group, U.S. Department of Education


Brian Stone
Policy Analyst, Students and Young Consumers, CFPB

[Beginning of recorded session.]

BRIAN STONE: Welcome to the Financial InTuition Podcast where you can find your inner financial intuition one money topic at a time. The goal of the podcast is to educate, inform, and engage our audience with tools and resources created to help them make more informed financial decisions. These tools and resources can be found on our website at You can also click the link in the show notes for additional information. This is the second episode of a three-episode Understanding Your Financial Aid Offer series which focuses on using College Scorecard to find your academic fit, what to know in filling out the FAFSA, and using the CFPB's Grad Path tool to help with college decision-making.

Before we get started, I'll read our Consumer Financial Protection Bureau standard disclaimer. This podcast is being produced by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It is intended to generate discussion about what to know when filling out the FAFSA. The questions asked and topics discussed were developed in coordination with the presenter and may not represent the Bureau's views on any particular matter. Any opinion or views stated by the presenters are the presenter's own and may not represent the Bureau's views. Nothing said in this podcast by a Bureau representative constitutes legal interpretation, guidance, or advice of the Bureau.

Hello, everyone. I'm Brian Stone, a policy analyst in the section for Students and Young Consumers. Our section creates tools and resources to help those working with students, young adults, and their families manage their money, build credit, save or pay for college, and repay student debt.

We're excited to gain insight from Fred Stennis from the U.S. Department of Education on what to know when filling out the FAFSA. So, without further ado, let's jump right in. Welcome, Fred.

FRED STENNIS: Hey, Brian. Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

BRIAN STONE: Thanks for joining. Can you tell our audience a little about you and your work at the Department of Education?

FRED STENNIS: Sure. I can share a little bit. I am the senior advisor and the supervisor over the outreach team within the Student Experience and Aid Delivery directorate at Federal Student Aid. I basically manage a group of dynamic outreach specialist, and we pretty much provide information and guidance to assist students and families throughout the student aid life cycle. We do things like deliver information and content to different influencers. We target segments of the population who are traditionally underrepresented in postsecondary education, do things like develop and implement strategies to increase awareness of all aspects of financial aid. We do training for counselors and mentors, and we do things like coordinate with community organizations and other project partners to meet their customer needs. That's, in a nutshell, about what I do specifically.

BRIAN STONE: Thanks for sharing. Can you tell us a little about the FAFSA and why it's important?

FRED STENNIS: Sure. It's called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, formally known as the FAFSA form. FSA disburses more than over $120 billion every year, and it's important because it all begins with completing and submitting a FAFSA form. It's also important because most scholarships and state agencies that award state grants use the FAFSA form in determining eligibility as well. It's really important that everyone complete a FAFSA if you're interested in pursuing postsecondary education.

And let me just say it's not necessarily synonymous with the admissions application, but you can do the FAFSA application, regardless, and we really recommend it as well.

BRIAN STONE: Great, great. I know you hit on it a tad bit, but which segues into the next question. Who should fill out the FAFSA?

FRED STENNIS: Good question. Whether you're a traditional age student or an adult learner returning to complete your postsecondary education, you should submit a FAFSA form. It's open to all U.S. citizens and who meet certain eligibility criteria, and certain requirements. Whether you are pursuing an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree, graduate, postgraduate degree, a certificate or a credential, you should complete a FAFSA application.

BRIAN STONE: Right. And those are great points. I know in our line of work sometimes; we will hear from families who think they might make too much or adult learners who think they shouldn’t complete the FAFSA.


BRIAN STONE: But, as you said, everyone should fill it out. I recently heard a story from an adult learner who's going to a community college, and they were paying out of pocket. They didn't fill out the FAFSA because they didn't think they should, but I guess within the second year, someone told them that they should complete it because they had a community-based scholarship that ended up paying for the remaining part of their program that they had no idea about. It's an important form, and everyone, regardless of what your plans are, should at least complete that step because then it gives you, as you said, the options to have access to that aid, potentially.

FRED STENNIS: There are so many other sources out there that are tied to the FAFSA application for scholarship funds, other grant funds, and other resources, so—and a lot of them use our FAFSA application for their criteria to determine their eligibility for certain students. We really encourage everyone to do the FAFSA application, so you don't potentially knock yourself out of the running for certain pockets of aid, whether it's federal aid or any other type of aid.

BRIAN STONE: What are some important steps an applicant should take before starting an application?

FRED STENNIS: Well, one important step is they should include logging on to the website to obtain an FSA ID. That's critical. Or logging on to the Federal Student Aid YouTube channel to learn more about our programs and the financial aid process. Also, they can download the myStudentAid mobile app for your convenience at your Apple store or your Google Play store. Those are just some key steps that applicants should remember and look to for some guidance.

But I strongly recommend, again, That's your one-stop shop for all phases of the financial aid life cycle.

BRIAN STONE: Great. Thank you. We will definitely make sure to link the student aid in the show notes, so great.

What are some common mistakes that you see applicants make?

FRED STENNIS: Oh, wow! We see a few, not too many, but we do see a few. One, for example—I'll give you just a few, like not completing the FAFSA form completely, because if you don't complete the form, you could lose out on thousands of dollars to help you pay for college, so not completing the form is one common mistake we see or not using the correct website. Of course, the official website is That's g-o-v, not dot-com, but g-o-v.

A third common mistake we see is not filling out the FAFSA form as soon as it's available. Of course, it comes out every year, October 1. If you want to get the most financial aid possible, then you want to fill it out as soon as possible because some funds run out, and we want to make sure that you don't miss your opportunity to getting all the funds that you're eligible for.

Another common mistake that we see is not getting an FSA ID before filling out the FAFSA form. So don't wait. You can create the FSA ID now by going to, or you can go straight to the website, and there's a link or an icon button right there you can click on. It's not required, per se, to do it prior to submitting a FAFSA. We just strongly recommend it so you can get that piece out of the way, because you can complete it the day of the application as well, but we recommend you do that early, as soon as possible.

Also, we see students not using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. That's a new tool that's been out for a little while now that's very convenient. It's a link between the IRS and the FAFSA application that allows the financial information to be transmitted directly from the IRS into the FAFSA application.

Another one is—that is critical—is not reading the definitions or the help text that we supply on the actual application. We've done a lot to enhance those help text definitions and clarity so we can make sure that everybody understands the terms they may be using.

And just a couple more, for example, inputting incorrect information such as confusing parent information with student information. You want to make sure you're putting the right information in the right section.

And I would say lastly, not reporting required information like the parent information, even if you fully support yourself or pay your own bills, but for FAFSA purposes, you must be age 24 or above to be considered independent. Therefore, we'll need to student's information in the student section and the parent information in the parent section. Those are just a few common mistakes that we see.

Oh, yeah. Also, listing only one college, that's another thing we see. We recommend you list—well, you can list up to 10 schools or colleges on the FAFSA application, but we strongly recommend that you list more than just one. We see that periodically. I just want to make that known that it's really important to list more than just one. We can talk a little later on why that's important, but listing more than one is very critical.

BRIAN STONE: Oh, great. Yeah. And I know one point you hit on was the difference between a dependent student and an independent student and how different information may be required of each one. Can you explain the difference between those two types of students?

FRED STENNIS: Sure. Dependent students must submit the FAFSA application form using their information along with the parent's information. An independent student will only submit using their own personal information and no parental information.

There's a criteria that's outlined in law that identifies or defines who an independent person might be. Let me give you some of those requirements. Number one, you're age 24 or older. As of today, are you married, for example, when you're considering independent student? If you meet one of these criteria I'm going to name off, then you consider yourself an independent student.

Let me start over again. Age 24 or older. Married. Pursuing a degree, like a master's degree or doctor degree or JD or PhD degree. Or do you have any dependents yourself where you supply at least half the support for? You're currently serving in the active-duty services, armed forces, or veteran of the armed forces, or maybe your parents are deceased. You were in foster care or a ward of the court or emancipated minor as determined by the courts, and then, lastly, were you determined to be homeless or unaccompanied minor? If you meet one of these 10 criteria, then you're considered automatically as an independent student, and we're only going to look for your personal information on the FAFSA form and not additional parent information.

And when you pull up the application, we have what's called "Skip Logic" that's embedded in the application. It will ask you these questions, and based on how you answer, it will give you a conclusion as to whether or not you're independent or dependent.

I hope that was helpful, Brian.

BRIAN STONE: Oh, yes, that's extremely helpful. And, at least for students who may be unsure like they'll know once I'm completing all the fields that you said accurately, and then with Skip Logic, it will ask me the next question based on what I previously answered. As long as I answer correctly, the application is going to guide me through the process, so that's extremely helpful.

FRED STENNIS: Right. You're right.

BRIAN STONE: We often hear from parents—or students and parents, and both are sort of hesitant around the idea of parent sharing their financial information. That's one thing that comes up a lot. How will parents' or guardians' information be used?

FRED STENNIS: Basically, we just use the information that parents put on the application and the students. Again, both are needed to complete the FAFSA application if you are a dependent student. We use things like, for example, the tax information. We look for things like the AGI, adjusted gross income, taxes paid or wages or just the household size, and these elements are determined in the process of determining what one's eligibility might be and their ability to pay and their household resources to pay for that education. These are just some key factors that we look for to determine what kind of federal programs one might be able to participate in and those dollars are available to help pay the cost for higher ed.

BRIAN STONE: Okay, great. For parents and students who need additional help completing the FAFSA, what resources are available?

FRED STENNIS: I strongly recommend that parents and students, again, go to website as their one-stop source for all the information. No matter where you are in the financial aid life cycle, there you will find helpful Q&As, including COVID-19 updates. You want to make sure you check that out as well.

We're also on various social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn. We got a lot of good, short, easy-to-follow YouTube videos that explain again the processes that we have.

And remember you can always give us a call at 1-800-4FEDAID, or 800-433-3243, and we have operators standing by in all time zones ready to assist you and answer any of your questions you might have.

BRIAN STONE: Excellent. I know we covered a lot of best practices, but I guess if we had to sum it up in just a few, what would be some of the best practices you would recommend to the applicant?

FRED STENNIS: Okay, okay. I'll first remind you again the FAFSA is available again beginning October 1 of every year, and you should submit as early as possible after October 1. Be mindful of state, local, and institutional deadlines.

Just a few, I guess, best practices. If you are struggling financially and you have multiple—you can go to our website and find out multiple payment options that might help you, so again utilizing the website, we have what's called a Loan Simulator there that helps those that are currently in repayment and need some flexibilities.

Stay tuned for updates from your loan servicer. That's always critical. You want to make sure you identify your loan servicer and stay in touch with them. You want to—if your have your monthly payments are suspended, make sure you're aware that your monthly payments are suspended for all ed-owned loans, so you don't have to worry about any interest or any payments that are out there. You want to avoid any coronavirus-related scams. There's some scams out there right now that people are utilizing in our name. We want to make sure you avoid those. Those are just a few practices we recommend, but again, staying in touch with your loan servicer, if you have a loan, utilizing our website—I can't stress that enough—staying in touch with your financial aid administrator once you actually selected a school that you want to attend and you plan to attend in the fall or spring. Make sure you are aware of their best practices on their website, the financial aid section of the school's website. Those are just a few things I'd recommend.

BRIAN STONE: Those are definitely great, and we'll make sure to add some of those to the show notes again because I know they can be extremely helpful when you're filling out the application and also simultaneously applying to college and trying to figure out how you're going to pay. There are a lot of different things happening, and so it would definitely be helpful to have a list, which we'll make sure to add to the notes, so great.


FRED STENNIS: Great, excellent. I was going to share with you, after you complete the FAFSA, I wanted to say another thing that's really helpful and we want students to be aware of is that make sure you have reviewed your SAR, or Student Aid Report, which you can expect typically within a few days after submitting the FAFSA via your email. It's important to follow up with, again, your financial aid institution. That is so critical that you follow up with them because they are the ones who are going to provide what's called your "award letter," if you will, and determine what funds or programs you're going to be eligible for. You need to make sure that you're looking for that award summary, which outlines those elements. Again, going to that website, you'll learn all about their specific procedures and guidelines that they may have, because each institution may have different guidelines in their processes.

Again, so review the financial page on the school website. That's really critical. I can't stress it enough.

BRIAN STONE: No, and that's extremely helpful. And I know you—before, you talked previously, a small amount, about scams and how important that is just to be aware of those things, and they'd send a popup around this time of year anyway.

FRED STENNIS: Right, right.

BRIAN STONE: People are completing a FAFSA, but especially within the pandemic and scammers know that people will be particularly vulnerable. They pop up with "Oh, pay us to get scholarships. Or "pay us to fill out the FAFSA for you or to have access to federal funds," and as you said.

FRED STENNIS: We see it, and I know you see it too on your end as well.

BRIAN STONE: Yep, yep. See it a lot.

FRED STENNIS: Yeah. If they're asking for payment, it's a scam. This is free information, free tools, free guidance. Give us a call if you have questions. We do not want anybody to be duped or scammed in any way by paying.

We've seen and heard people paying as much as $500 or more to get this free information that we're sharing and discussing today, and there's no need for that. We really want people to be aware of how to avoid those scams.

BRIAN STONE: That's extremely important. We will definitely continue to get the information out there, and as you said and what we try to reiterate also, anytime you're talking about educational resources, federal financial aid it's easier in a lot of cases to—there are a lot of news outlets there, and sometimes they'll get information incorrectly. Just go directly to the source.

FRED STENNIS: Right, right, right.

FRED STENNIS: Know your source. And we try to stay up to date and current with all our information so it remains viable and helpful. Just let us know. Give us a call or go to our social media sites, as you've outlined, and we've prepared all kind of information that will help you get through with ease. We do have—I'd say over close to 20 million applications a year. That's a lot, and we process a lot of our applications. I'd say about 97, 98 percent of them online at our website. We're prepared, and we know there's a lot of people out there. But you can get help. Just know you can get help. Do not be scammed.

BRIAN STONE: We discussed a lot today on the importance of completing the FAFSA on time. Three key takeaways to remember or even if you have a plan to cover the cost of your higher education program, you should still complete the FAFSA. Make sure you're aware of key application deadlines and how they can impact your aid eligibility. Remember to visit the Department of Education's website for important updates on completing the FAFSA.

Thank you for joining us today, Fred, and sharing your expertise with our audience.

FRED STENNIS: Thank you for inviting me to do this. I enjoyed it. Appreciate it.

BRIAN STONE: We appreciate our listeners for tuning in. To stay connected, please visit our podcast page on, and so you don't miss future episodes, sign up to be notified of new releases. As always, remember to continue to develop your financial intuition and learn money management lessons you can use now to build a future you want tomorrow.

[End of recorded session.]