First things first: I used to work as a full-time financial aid officer, which means I can answer a lot of your questions, but some things are different at every school and where that's the case you'll need to contact a particular financial aid office to get information about that particular school. People without training love dispensing advice (particularly at collegeconfidential) as though they are experts, but in the end your best source of information is always the financial aid office at the school in question because there is a lot of nuance to financial aid.
You can always go back to the online FAFSA and send your information to more schools. It's always free, though it's not instantaneous, so better to put in too many schools than too few.
Will this prevent me from going back to college or can I take out as much in Stafford loans as I want?
Nobody can take an unlimited amount in Stafford loans. In addition to annual limits, there are aggregate limits which depend on the student's level of study and dependency status. Stafford loans are also divided into two categories, unsubsidized and subsidized, for which these limits differ. You can find a chart explaining those limits here
; if you have questions about how to interpret the charts, ask, and I'll do my best to explain. There's also more general information on that page. DO NOT TRUST INFORMATION ON OTHER WEBSITES. There have been significant changes to federal loan programs in recent years, and while there is a lot of good
information on sites like finaid.org, there is also a lot of old, incorrect, extraneous and misleading
information (for instance, finaid.org still hasn't updated to reflect that the FFELP program was shut down nearly a year ago). Best to stick to official Department of Education sources.
Would I be eligible to take out the max amount in Stafford loans regardless of my EFC? Or does the EFC determine how much I can get in loans?
Your EFC will limit your eligibility for a subsidized Stafford loan, but not for an unsubsidized Stafford loan. First, your college's financial aid department calculates an estimated cost of attendance (COA) based on likely or established amounts for tuition, fees, material costs, books, transportation, room and board, and miscellaneous expenses. Your EFC is then subtracted from the COA along with any grants or scholarships you receive; this becomes your "financial need" (not necessarily the amount you will
need to pay) which determines your eligibility for the subsidized Stafford loan. If your need is $1,000, you'll qualify for up to a $1,000 subsidized Stafford loan. If your need is $10,000, you'll qualify for the maximum subsidized Stafford loan (per the chart linked earlier).
Unsubsidized Stafford loans, since they are not need-based, work differently. If you had a COA of $30,000 but you were independently wealthy with an EFC of $70,000, you would have no financial need and be completely ineligible for subsidized Stafford loans. However, you would still have the option of borrowing up to the maximum amount in unsubsidized Stafford loans (for an independent freshman, this would be $5,500). In other words, unsubsidized Stafford can be used to satisfy your expected family contribution (as can PLUS loans for parents of dependent students), as long as your total aid does not exceed the COA calculated for you by the school
. There are a few things that are excluded from this total aid calculation—off the top of my head, veteran's benefits and Americorps awards—so in some cases it is possible to exceed the COA, but they are rare.
Would I be considered a freshman for financial aid purposes if I start over with a new degree but pull in gen-ed credits from my old one?
This is one of those questions that depends on the policy of the specific institution. Generally speaking
, any credits which don't transfer in toward your degree program are not counted toward your class standing. Let's say Casey attends UMass for two years and accrues 60 semester units, half of them gen eds and the other half studio art courses, before deciding to leave school. Casey works for some years and then decides to return to school at another institution. If Casey applies as a transfer student into a fine art major, the second college will attempt to transfer in all those units, as long as the UMass courses can be matched to courses at the new school. On the other hand, if Casey applies to transfer into an engineering major, the school is likely to take only the 30 gen ed units, and possibly a small number of fine art units if the new school has a requirement that every student take 3 units of art to graduate, for example. In the former situation, Casey is a junior, while in the latter situation Casey is a sophomore, as determined by the college. And the decision of the college is what the Department of Education will use to determine loan eligibility.
If you provide some information about your old transcript(s) and your new intended major, I can give you a guesstimate of your likely standing when you return to school, but for a real answer you'll need to have your transcript evaluated at each school in question. Note also that colleges which only award two-year degrees can never grant students junior or senior standing, no matter how many units they have.