Now that college application season has begun for students entering their senior year of high school, it’s time for students and families to consider college costs and how they’re going to pay them. The key to college financing is the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which every school, both public and private, uses to calculate how much aid is available for a particular student and which all government student loans — for students and parents — require before dispensing any funds.
Everyone should complete the FAFSA. Even returning students who didn’t get any financial aid the previous year should complete the FAFSA. Changes in student assets or parents’ income could impact the amount and type of financial aid available.
You can’t get money if you don’t apply, so always apply. Even if you don’t qualify for aid, FAFSA is a prerequisite for unsubsidized federal Stafford loans and federal PLUS loans, which are available without regard to financial aid.
1. File the FAFSA ASAP. This year, that means as soon as possible after October 1 – the first date the latest FAFSA will be available. Even if you don’t know where your child will be going to college and haven’t filed your tax return for the previous year, file early. The earlier you file the FAFSA the better off you will be. There are several reasons to file sooner than later, all related to the early bird getting the worm. Usually, financial aid is given on a first come, first serve basis until the money runs out. Parents who file the FAFSA early tend to receive more than twice as much grant dollars as on average as students who file later, and they get more money the earlier they file.
2. Other financial aid forms in addition to the FAFSA. There are several other types of financial aid application forms besides the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). These include the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form, institutional financial aid forms and state financial aid forms.
Some states supplement the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) with their own financial aid application forms. In some cases, the state forms are designed to gather information that is not available from the FAFSA. For example, The New Jersey Alternative Financial Aid Application allows undocumented students enrolled in eligible New Jersey colleges and universities to apply for state financial aid. NJ aid is here at https://www.hesaa.org/
Colleges and universities may require the student to complete supplemental financial aid forms and applications for the purposes of awarding institutional or private student aid funds. Institutional aid applications allow colleges and universities to distribute scholarship and other financial aid from the school’s own resources. Some of these scholarships and financial aid programs have special data requirements that are not necessarily collected by the two national application forms, the FAFSA and CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. Some colleges use their own financial aid application instead of the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. Check with individual schools for their forms.
3. Adjust income for the new, earlier FAFSA filing date. Since FAFSA will look back two years instead of one, parents of high school juniors this year should try to minimize the income they report on their tax return. Offset capital gains with losses or don’t realize any more gains that you can offset with losses. In the future, don’t make changes during [your kid’s] junior year but in the sophomore year of high school because of the new income reporting look back.
4. Use the IRS Retrieval Tool to report income. Not only does this save time but it also reduces the odds of delays because the numbers won’t be subject to verification. In the meantime for the upcoming 2019-2020 academic year, parents estimate income using their latest tax return filed or 2017 pay stubs, then update that data with the IRS Retrieval Tool after the 2018 tax return is filed.
5. Get an FSA ID. Before parents or students can file a FAFSA they need a Federal Student Aid ID, which can be obtained at the fsaid.ed.gov website. This ID replaces the PINs that students and parents used previously because it is not tied to Social Security numbers, birthdates and other personal data and therefore considered more electronically secure.
6. Double-check everything. Nothing will delay a FAFSA faster than errors or omissions. Use legal names for parents and students, check social security numbers, addresses, etc. And note that every reference to “I” or “You” refers to the students, not the parents or FAFSA preparer, if one is used.
7. File the FAFSA electronically. This allows parents and students to receive results in a few days which will include the Expected Family Contribution that schools base financial aid on and that government loans require.
The FAFSA can be sent to a maximum 10 schools; after that, schools can be switched out with more names. Starting in the 2016-2017 academic year, FAFSA will not share the list of colleges on a student’s FAFSA with other colleges they have applied to. That could help students qualify for admission and financial aid because some colleges have used the list of students’ preferred schools when considering their applications. Since some college ratings lists consider the percentage of accepted students who then enroll, a college was more likely to turn down a student who ranked it a low priority.