Last Updated: February 22, 2010
If you're a parent with college-bound children, odds are high that you are grappling with something called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA for short.
The FAFSA is the document that parents complete when applying for federal student aid for colleges and universities. Since grants and scholarships are also awarded via the FAFSA application, all college students should fill out the application every year. The application can be complicated and frustrating to complete. Indeed, many financial planners say that completing the form is more difficult than most financial documents, including tax returns and mortgage applications.
Fortunately, financial planners and other experts say there are ways to lessen the pain of completing the form and, more importantly, increase the odds of getting financial aid. Here's what financial planners and others suggest:
- Visit the official FAFSA Web site. The U.S. Department of Education operates a Web site for those who want to apply for federal student aid. The FAFSA Web site accepts and processes aid applications with no fee or cost. Other Web sites operated by the federal government worth visiting include Students.gov and Student Aid.gov.
- Use FAFSA4caster. The federal government also has an online tool to help you predict whether you will qualify for federal financial aid. FAFSA4caster is a tool that estimates your expected family contribution (EFC) and notes how much state and college aid you may expect to receive and whether you will qualify for the federal Pell grant program. To use the tool, you will need to enter your child's Social Security number, as well as your own tax and financial information. The process isn't quick, but your FAFSA4caster information will automatically be transferred to the official FAFSA Web site when your child is ready to apply. Also, don't forget to visit the College Board's Web site to search for scholarships and use financial aid calculators.
- Decide which forms you need to complete. According to Campus Consultants' Financial Aid 101 tip sheet, you will have to complete the FAFSA at a minimum. But depending on the colleges involved and your situation, you may also have to file the online CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE Application (PROFILE), a state aid application, the college(s)' own aid form(s), the Business/Farm Supplement, and/or a form with data from a noncustodial parent. If you will have more than one family member in college at the same time, you will have to file separate forms for each student. Learn other tips from Campus Consultants.
Here are some tips courtesy of New York State Higher Education Services:
- Plan to complete the FAFSA online. It's faster, easier and more accurate than the paper version.
- Prepare your federal income taxes early. Be sure to have your parents prepare their taxes early, too. Much of the financial information required on the FAFSA comes from your federal tax form. If you estimate and there is a difference in reported income, be sure to file a corrected FAFSA later.
- Get a Personal Identification Number (PIN) now. Apply for federal financial aid electronically, you and your parents must get a Federal Student Aid PIN. The U.S. Department of Education will e-mail the PIN to you if you provide an e-mail address, otherwise you will receive it by mail in about a week. You will use the PIN to "sign" your FAFSA electronically.
- File a FAFSA, even if you filed one last year. You are required to complete a FAFSA every academic year you attend college and request aid. The online FAFSA will remember you from previous applications, so you will need only to provide updated information.
- Keep your PIN and passwords in a safe place. Your PIN is as important as your bank PIN. Don't share it with anyone.
- Remember, when the FAFSA refers to "you," or "your," it means, you, the student, NOT your parents or family.
- Make sure to use your legal name, as shown on your Social Security card. Enter your Social Security number (SSN) carefully. An incorrect SSN may delay your application — and you may miss important deadlines for financial aid. To correct an error, you may have to submit copies of your birth certificate and Social Security card before your FAFSA can be processed.
- Read every question carefully and complete every field according to the instructions on the FAFSA. The computer often reads a blank as an error. The online form uses "skip logic" to help you avoid answering unnecessary questions.
- Answer "both" to the questions asking about your interest in different types of federal aid, such as work-study and student loans. You won't be obligated to accept offers you don't want, and answering "no" will not afford additional grant money.
- Count yourself, the student, as one of the people in your family who will be college students during the award year.
- Save your online work frequently in case you need to leave your computer for any reason. You can resume the online session later.
- Make copies of your online signature page for both yourself and your parents.
- Review the Student Aid Report (SAR) carefully. The SAR will be e-mailed to you and your selected colleges after the FAFSA has been processed. Make sure the SAR doesn't indicate any problems such as missing signatures or contain incorrect financial information. Check your name and Social Security number carefully. You can make any necessary corrections to the FAFSA at the FAFSA Web site, however correcting your name or Social Security number may require additional information.
- Assume you are ineligible for financial aid. Many scholarships and grants are available based on merit and other factors, but still require a FAFSA for consideration.
- Procrastinate. Schedule time to complete the online FAFSA as soon as possible after Jan. 1, 2010. Many colleges have early deadlines for consideration of scholarships, grants and other forms of financial aid. Check your college's Web site for specific deadlines and special application forms.
- Use decimal points when completing financial sections. Decimals are not recognized during processing, so $500.00 will be misread as $50,000.
- Forget to sign the forms. When filing online, make sure to use the correct federal PINs for you, the student, and your parents.
- Hesitate to contact the college financial aid administrator if there are unusual family circumstances. You may ask for a professional judgment review.
The Federal Student Aid Information Center provides a free hotline, 1-800-4 FED-AID (1-800-433-3243 or TDD 1-800-730-8913) for questions about federal student aid, including questions about completing the FAFSA. The hotline and Web site are operated by the U.S. Department of Education, so these sources can provide definitive answers to questions about federal student aid and filing procedures.
Financial planners also note that everything could change next year. As with all things financial, it pays to have a professional help you avoid costly mistakes. Find a financial planner.