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Understand Your Student Aid Report

By Chris Diehl

June 03, 2008

If you’ve never set eyes on a Student Aid Report (SAR) before, it can be a dizzying experience. What do all those acronyms and numbers mean? It all looks so official and important.

If you’ve recently submitted a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) you can expect to receive a SAR in return. And while the SAR is long on data, it is rather short on detailed explanation. Keep reading for a demystification of this sometimes inscrutable document.

When to Expect Your SAR

How you filed your FAFSA will affect how soon you get your SAR. If you filed electronically and chose to receive your SAR via email, you should receive your SAR within a few days.

The federal processor will send your SAR from the email address: cpsnotify@cpsemail.ed.gov. Consider adding this email address to your address book or email whitelist. Keep an eye on your bulk or junk mail folders after you submit your FAFSA in case the email with your SAR gets routed there.

If you’ve experienced previous problems receiving automatically generated emails, you may want to elect to receive the paper SAR instead of the electronic version.

If you filed a paper FAFSA, you should receive your SAR via postal mail in three to four weeks. If you haven’t received an SAR within four weeks of filing your FAFSA using either method, call the U.S. Department of Education help desk at: 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).

What to Look For

Below our some of the items you might find on your SAR. Don’t worry if you’re a little fuzzy on some of the terms; there’s an explanation of each item below.

Expected Family Contribution (EFC): Page 1, underneath the date near the top right of your SAR. The EFC is the amount the federal government believes that your family is able to contribute toward your college costs, based on the financial information provided. This is not necessarily the amount you will have to pay -more on that later.

Verification: If there is an asterisk next to your EFC, it means that your SAR has been flagged for verification. You will also be informed of having been selected for verification in the SAR Acknowledgement letter, which will be included with your SAR documents.

Data Release Number (DRN): Page 1, in the lower left-hand corner (upper-right corner of the electronic version). The DRN is a four-digit reference number.

Loan Summary: Page 3, top half of the page. If you have any outstanding federal student loans, they will be listed on this page.

FAFSA Changes: Pages 5 through 8. These pages give you a chance to correct any information that sent incorrectly the first time you filed your FAFSA.

Pell Grant Eligibility: SAR Acknowledgement letter, near the bottom of the text.

Making Sense of It

Even if you have a handle on where these items are located on the SAR, it is still important to understand what they mean and why they’re useful:

Expected Family Contribution (EFC): Keep in mind that the Expected Family Contribution is not necessarily the amount your family will actually end up paying. Instead, the figure represents the amount the government believes your family is able to contribute, based on your family’s income, assets, number of college-age students and other factors.

The amount that you end up having to pay could be less than, more than or equal to your EFC. Why is this? The federal processor uses its own formula when calculating EFC, based on your financial situation. However, not all colleges use the government’s methodology when calculating EFC; many colleges use their own formula instead (often referred to as institutional methodology). The methodology your college uses may influence how your EFC is calculated, resulting in a final EFC that is different from the one posted on your SAR.

Verification: If your SAR has been selected for verification, it means that you may have to show additional financial documentation to your college in order to qualify for federal aid. The federal processor has many automatic triggers in place to flag data discrepancies for verification. Sometimes the processor finds a mistake or conflicting data; other times, it may flag an SAR with data that are not reflective of a “typical” family.

Verification doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong. It affects about 30 percent of all SARs and is a relatively routine request. You may have to fill out a Verification Worksheet, which you can obtain from your college’s financial aid office. In all likelihood, you will have to provide supporting documentation (e.g., tax returns, W-2, etc.). Because so much aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, it is very important that this step be completed in a timely manner.

Data Release Number (DRN): You’ll need to reference this number if you want to make your SAR available to schools you did not include originally on your FAFSA. You’ll also need to have your DRN handy if you need to change your address.

Loan Summary: Review the loans listed and make sure they are correct. If you want to review your outstanding loans in greater detail, you can visit the National Student Loan Data System’s Web site. You will need the same PIN you used to sign your FAFSA to access your loan information. If you have no federal loans, then there is no need to review this section.

FAFSA Changes: It is important that you check over your information on the last few pages of the SAR to make sure it’s correct. Make any necessary changes as soon as possible. You can make changes to your processed FAFSA in the space provided, or you make changes online. Be sure to correct estimated information, if you are able to do so.

Note that the FAFSA is meant to be a “snapshot” of your situation when you originally signed it. Therefore, even if your financial or marital situation has changed since you originally signed the FAFSA, such information should not be changed when reviewing your SAR. Make sure that you (and your parent, if you are a dependent student) sign the corrections before submitting them back to the federal processor. To electronically sign a corrected FAFSA, you will need your PIN.

Pell Grant Eligibility: Don’t be surprised if you are not eligible-most students aren’t. This is a grant given to low-income families and it is very difficult to meet the standards required to receive one.

If you have any further questions about the SAR or if you don’t receive one in a timely manner, contact the U.S. Department of Education Help Desk at: 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) as well as your college’s (or prospective college’s) financial aid office.


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