Many people spend the first couple of weeks of the New Year slowly easing back into to their routine. Not so me. Once the ball drops, I get buried in FAFSAs. I’ve prepared quite a few already and I’ve got good news and bad news. First the good news: it’s exactly the same form as last year’s. Now the bad news: it’s exactly the same form as last year’s.
For those who are new to the college process, January 1 is the first day that the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (the ‘FAFSA’) becomes available. The FAFSA contains roughly 100 questions about your family’s income, assets, real estate holdings, household members, student’s assets, etc. Your answers will be used by the government, and in turn the school financial aid offices, to determine how much they believe you can afford to pay for college for one child for one year. The form is available at www.fafsa.gov. It does not cost anything to complete and submit the FAFSA. (Note: Do not go to www.fafsa.com, as this is a fee-based website).
The form itself is not difficult per se – understanding the rules, regulations and loopholes that go into the government’s formula is another matter. Overstate the equity in your investment property or mis-identify a parent asset as a student asset, for example, and you can wind up losing out on thousands of dollars of aid you would have otherwise been eligible to receive. The College Board estimates that about 90% of forms have mistakes on them, while the Department of Education states that 40% of families leave money on the table.
Every student planning to go to college must fill out a FAFSA in order to be considered for Federal and Institutional Financial Aid (note that in Florida, students who wish to qualify for the state’s Bright Futures merit scholarship must also file this form, regardless of whether they plan to apply for additional scholarship aid). If you are considering strategies to reduce your EFC, the time to act is now. If you are not sure what an EFC is, the time to act is definitely now – well before (as in years before) you hit ‘submit’ on any of these forms.
And for 12th grade parents in particular, this is an emergency. The priority financial aid deadline for most schools for first-time applicants is usually on or before February 15th, and we urge all families to meet that deadline. Financial aid is often awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, and we are expecting a record number of applicants to be vying for money from a shrinking award pool.
The FAFSA (and it’s evil twin the CSS Profile) request income information for 2011. Since most families have not completed their taxes yet and may not even be sure of their year-end numbers at this time, it is appropriate and EXPECTED that you will use estimates on the FAFSA. Once your taxes are completed and submitted, you can make adjustments to your form. Note that you will not receive a final offer until you have filed your taxes so this is not a year to procrastinate with the IRS.
And since I mentioned procrastinate…parents with 11th graders should take heed, as your financial aid base year has just begun. (The government will use your 2012 inome to determine your family’s eligibility for scholarships). The time to make adjustments to your holdings to ensure that you qualify for the maximum amount of aid is now — certainly before your form is filed and ideally before your base year so that your plan is in place before the ‘look back’ period.
Financial aid is not what it used to be. Families with six-figure incomes often and yes, routinely, qualify for five-figure awards. I know this to be true not just because the Wall Street Journal has said so (which they have), but because I’ve seen it happen every year. The financial aid process is like a game. Know the rules and you win. Stay in the dark and you risk losing out on thousands of dollars for your child’s education. I’ll be discussing these rules and the entire college admissions and funding process (including the financial aid formula) at my workshop in Pinecrest next week. Click here for more details and to register. There is absolutely no cost to attend, but missing out on this info could cost you a fortune.
If you are the parent of a college-bound teen, I urge you to join me for this class.