Parents and their college-bound children tend to dread one five-letter word as college acceptance season rolls around: FAFSA. The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is released on Jan. 1 of each year, is a form families must fill out in order to qualify for federal college loans and grants, as well as a majority of scholarships and aid that are available. A lot of questions come up when filing this document, including the right time to fill out the FAFSA, whether you should complete it prior to filing your federal income taxes for the previous year and how to report savings. We’ve got you covered! BlackEnterprise.com spoke to Marcia E. Weston, Director of College Goal Sunday at YMCA of the USA—a free, statewide volunteer program that assists students and families applying for financial aid—on helpful tips to completing the juggernaut of college paperwork—and getting more money.
Fill it out NO matter what
Never second-guess your decision to fill out the FAFSA. Regardless of your family’s income, filing out the document qualifies you to receive various forms of financial assistance. According to a Minnesota Office of Higher Education report, in 2007-2008, of the 8.4 million students who did not file a FAFSA, an estimated 2.3 million students were estimated to have an Expected Family Contribution (EFC)—the amount of money one’s family is expected to pay toward his/her college education per year—that would have made them eligible for a federal Pell Grant, with 1.1 million potentially qualifying for a full Pell Grant.
The sooner, the better
Financial aid is awarded on a first-come first-serve basis, so aim to submit your paperwork as close to the Jan. 1 deadline as possible. Although it’s easier, you don’t have to wait until you’ve filled out your income taxes. “It’s important to fill out the FAFSA even if your taxes aren’t completed,” says Weston. File now, but make any adjustments on the Student Aid Report (SAR) or directly with your accepted institution’s financial aid office.
After January 31, students or parents are able to upload their Internal Revenue Service tax data into the document.
Gather your financial documents before sitting down to complete the form
Alleviate the scramble (and headache) by having all your important documents in one centralized area. Have your social security card; driver’s license, if applicable; you and a parent’s personal identification number (PIN); 2010 W-2 forms and additional records of money earned; your 2010 Federal Income Tax Return; if you’re a dependent student, your parents’ 2010 Federal Income Tax Return; 2010 untaxed income records; current bank statements, and current business and investment records. You may need to reference the paperwork again, so keep the information handy. Also, filing electronically is strongly encouraged.
Note the deadlines
“Make sure you’re aware of what the [financial aid] deadlines are so you don’t miss them,” says the program director. Although some schools accept FAFSA on a rolling basis, others are stricter with their cut-off date. You can get confused with the collection of dates, from admission deadlines to financial aid deadlines, so be sure to stay on top of things.
List a mix of schools to increase your chances of receiving financial aid
Institutions look at your list of universities to see what other schools you’ve applied to, as well as size up their competition. It’s not uncommon for colleges to offer students more money based on this assessment. Hence, place low-cost, private and moderately priced schools on your FAFSA list. Never just input one choice.
Students: place money saved for college in a 529 savings account
“Savings is always a good idea,” says Weston, reassuringly. Even if the account is in your name, if you’re under the age of 24, it counts as your parent’s savings.
Don’t take out more loans than you think you can repay
If asked whether you would take out loans, then it’s strongly encouraged that you check ‘Yes.’ However, be sure to factor in the industry you’re aspiring to enter, the average salary and estimated time of repayment when taking out loans. Although it may seem like free money now, you’ll feel the brunt of your student loans when repayment kicks in. You can calculate your student loans at sites such as Mappingyourfuture.org and Collegeboard.com.
Report savings on the day you’re filing the FAFSA, not what’s on your annual statement
By putting down the amount on your statement you’ll be taking money right out of your own pockets. Instead, try taking money out of your savings account to pay towards debt (bills and expenses), so when you fill out the form you’ll have a smaller sum in that account. Remember: they’re asking you about the amount on that day, not any other days or about your expenses.
Make sure you have contact with the financial aid office in the school
If you have any concerns with what’s being reflected on your SAR, you should contact the financial aid office immediately. Weston suggests students be honest with financial aid, making them aware of the situation and asking them if they can, in turn, do something for them. As soon as one’s financial situation changes, that person must make the office aware of the adjustments so that can be factored in. The financial aid office can assist you, even granting you more money based on your current financial state.
Utilize free help
There are various programs such as College Goal Sunday and sites free of charge that are geared solely towards helping students answer the FAFSA accurately and completely. One mistake on the FAFSA can cost you hundreds, even thousands of dollars.