Nontraditional Students Should Fill Out a FAFSA Application, Too

Much of the information you’ll find about college financial aid (i.e., federal student loans, grants, scholarships, and employer tuition benefits) is geared toward students entering college right out of high school.

If you’re a “nontraditional” student returning to or starting college after already being in the workforce, you might think it’s not worth it to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Not so fast! Let’s take a look at 10 common financial aid myths that might help you change your mind about completing that application.

MYTH #1: I make too much money to qualify for financial aid.

The good news is, there is no income ceiling for federal financial aid[1]. Your income is just one of several factors captured on your FAFSA, determining your eligibility for financial support. Scholarships, loans, and work-study are all examples of funding that may require a current FAFSA. In addition, your FAFSA is often used to determine eligibility for state or school-specific aid. Other factors that influence financial aid eligibility include being a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen, having a valid Social Security number, being registered with Selective Service, and being enrolled or accepted as a student in an eligible degree or certificate program.

MYTH #2: My home equity will hurt my chances for financial aid.

The FAFSA doesn’t ask you whether you own or rent, so your home equity won’t affect your qualification for need-based federal aid. However, some colleges may require you to fill out a separate application that does consider your home equity for school-specific aid. Regardless, you may benefit from completing the FAFSA to see how much federal aid you qualify for.

MYTH #3: I have money set aside in a savings account, so I won’t get any aid.

Having some money in savings to help pay for college is great—using money you have first is always recommended—but it doesn’t mean you won’t qualify for any federal financial aid. There are many factors used to determine your financial aid allowances, and savings is just one of them. If you qualify for some assistance, consider using more of your savings to pay for books, transportation, or living expenses.

MYTH #4: I have to wait until after I file my taxes before completing the FAFSA.

You can complete your FAFSA as early as Oct. 1 for the upcoming aid year. The Department of Education will request you use your tax information from the prior year. This means if you complete a 2021-2022 FAFSA you will use your 2019 tax information. If you are eligible, you can use the Data Retrieval Tool to import your tax information directly from the IRS. For further details, please visit Federal Student Aid.

MYTH #5: The FAFSA application is too hard and will take too long to fill out.

Most people are able to complete the FAFSA online in less than an hour. The interactive form includes step-by-step instructions and only asks questions that are relevant to you. If you’ve already filed your taxes, you may be eligible to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically transfer your tax return data into your FAFSA. If you have questions as you go along, FAFSA help is available by chat, email, or phone.

MYTH #6: My grades from high school or past college aren’t good enough for FAFSA eligibility.

Don’t worry. Although merit scholarships reward students for outstanding academic records, the FAFSA doesn’t consider grades for federal financial aid eligibility, only that you show you’re qualified to obtain a college or career school education by having a high school diploma or a recognized equivalent such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. That said, once you’re enrolled, you will need to maintain satisfactory grades to continue receiving aid. Every school that accepts financial aid must have a satisfactory academic progress policy, which spells out what is required.

MYTH #7: I’m too old to apply for financial aid.

Whether you’re just graduating from high school, or you’re old enough to have children who are entering college, you should fill out the FAFSA. Federal student aid is not awarded based on age.

MYTH #8: I filled out the FAFSA before, so I don’t have to do it again.

You should fill out a FAFSA for every aid year (July 1 – June 30) you plan to attend college, until you are done with school. Financial aid is awarded on a yearly basis, so updated information is required each year. A Renewal FAFSA is a quick and easy way to apply without having to fill out the entire application every year.

MYTH #9: There’s not enough financial aid to go around, so I shouldn’t bother applying.

The office of Federal Student Aid provides more than $120 billion in funds each year.2  More than 80 percent of applicants  qualify for some level of assistance. With the amount of funds available, you very well may qualify for federal loans, work-study, tax credits, or deductions. You won’t know how much or what kind you will get until you apply.

MYTH #10: I cannot make changes to my financial aid package, if my situation changes.

Once you complete your FAFSA, there are limited circumstances in which it can be changed or updated. That said, if you’ve had significant changes to your financial or family circumstances, your school’s financial aid office may be able to help. Talk to a financial aid representative about your situation. They’ll guide you through the process, to get your financial aid package re-assessed.

Be aware that there are both annual and lifetime limits on financial aid. If you are an undergraduate student, the maximum amount you can borrow each year ranges from $5,500 to $12,500. If you are a graduate or professional student, you can borrow up to $20,500 each year. The lifetime limit for undergraduate students is $57,500, and for graduate students, it is $138,500.

The bottom line: You won’t know how much financial aid you can get unless you fill out your FAFSA. So, what are you waiting for? Use Capella University’s financial planning checklist to help guide you through the financial aid process. Then, head to the FAFSA website and get started.

[1] https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/eligibility

[2] https://studentaid.gov/about