The Money Mom: FAFSA February
If you have a child either in or about to enter college, you likely know that we’re in the midst of FAFSA season. This one form – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – gets the ball rolling on any financial aid your child may receive for school. In order to qualify for Pell grants, Stafford loans, PLUS loans, and work-study programs, you must fill it out.
Unfortunately, it’s also a form that has many parents pulling out their hair, year after year. If that’s you, I’ve compiled the top five ways to simplify the process. Much like doing your taxes, it’s never going to be painless, but these tips will certainly make it easier:
- Do it online. Please, please, do not try the pen and ink version. It’s just not worth it, particularly this year, because the Department of Education has streamlined the web application, but not the hard copy, says Patricia Nash Christel, a spokesperson for Sallie Mae. “The improvements have made the online interface easier to use. You can check your answers to make sure they make sense, and depending on the answers you give, you may be able to skip over questions, making the process shorter.” Again, it’s like doing your taxes with a web program (like TurboTax) versus filling out the form by hand. But in this case, filing the FAFSA online is completely free.
- Meet the deadline. Sounds simple, but there are more than a few deadlines when it comes to this all-important application, and you need to keep track of them. In theory, by federal standards, you have 18 months to submit – from January 1 of the applicable school year to the end of that school year – but as a general rule of thumb, the earlier you can file once January 1 comes along, the better. Then there are state deadlines, which can fall up to a year before the federal deadline (see a full list here), and school deadlines, which tend to be the earliest. Call the school’s financial aid office – or check the website – for details. Note: You want to grab as much of the money that’s available, and filing as early as possible is the best way to do that. But if you file before January 1, your application won’t be processed.
- Don’t stress out over taxes. I know what you’re thinking – it’s tax season, and this is just another financial chore on your list. Not only that, but if you tend to be one of those people in line at the post office on April 15, that will delay getting your FAFSA out as well. Fortunately, that’s not true. While it’s easier to file the FAFSA if you’ve already filed this year’s taxes, it’s not necessary, says Christel. “Don’t use not having your taxes done as an excuse to push off filing your FAFSA. If you can’t get them done in time, you can estimate based on last year’s information or your own calculations. Once you meet the deadline, you can go back and do an update after you file.”
- Gather all your paperwork. Before you even sit down at your computer, you should have everything you need handy – things like your tax returns (again, last year’s will suffice if you haven’t filed for 2009 yet), your bank account statements, and any investment information are all necessary. For a full list of the documents and information you’ll need, click here. Having everything in front of you will make the process go a lot faster.
- When in doubt, say yes. First of all, even if you don’t think you qualify for aid, you should at least file. You may very well be surprised. There may also be questions on the form that you’re unsure about – particularly whether your child would be interested in work study programs or student loans. When in doubt, say yes. You can always turn them down later, but you may as well find out the total amount of aid you’re eligible for.
- Finally, be clear on dependency. It’s relatively easy, but it’s not the same as whether you claim your children as dependants on your tax return. Generally, parents have to provide financial information for their child’s FAFSA if he or she is an undergraduate and under age 24. There are a few exceptions – if the child is a veteran or married – but that’s the standard rule of thumb. If your child is applying for aid for graduate school, he or she is always considered independent, no matter what age.