Five Tips to Soothe FAFSA Frustration

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Does hearing “FAFSA” fill you with dread? Anxiety? Or maybe even fear? If so, I assure you those are all normal feelings.

Parents often dread filing the FAFSA as much as filing taxes. The FAFSA actually looks and feels a lot like an IRS 1040 form, ​with all the confusing instructions, the lines and boxes and the calculations.

And for some parents, filing the FAFSA is when things get real. It’s the first time they face the reality that their child is leaving home soon. For many parents, it’s also the first time they face the reality of paying for college.

Understandably, then, many parents procrastinate when it comes to filing the FAFSA. But waiting to file can make life a lot harder for you and your child, not least because it means your family could get less financial aid for college.

For those of you dreading the FAFSA, I’ve created some​ ​FAFSA tips to ease the ​​​process. These won’t completely erase feelings of dread, anxiety or fear, but I hope they’re helpful nonetheless.

​FAFSA Tip #1: File Early

The FAFSA is available beginning October 1 each year and you should file soon after that, if possible.

​Prior to 2016, the FAFSA was available beginning January 1 each year and families had to file their taxes before they could submit a FAFSA. ​The old FAFSA asked for income data for the prior year, so a student starting college in Fall 2014 reported 2013 income data ​on the FAFSA. Since many families don’t file income taxes until February or March, that student​ would’ve submitted a FAFSA just a few months before heading to college.

Things have changed a lot since then. Now the FAFSA uses prior-prior year income, that is, income from two years ago. So a student starting college in Fall 2018 would’ve reported 2016, not 2017, income on the FAFSA.

​How the prior-prior year FAFSA rule benefits families

The prior-prior year rule may sound confusing, but this change benefits families in two ways.

First, families can file the FAFSA much earlier than before, which gives them more time to plan for college. Since the FAFSA now uses income data from two years ago, you no longer have to wait until your prior year taxes are finished to apply for financial aid. Instead, you can file the FAFSA in October and know by January how much financial aid you might get for college.

Second, filing the FAFSA early allows you to get the task out of the way before the college application season really ramps up. Many colleges have application deadlines in December and January, which means families spend a lot of time in the fall preparing and submitting college applications. Add in applying for scholarships and taking (or retaking) the ACT/SAT and there’s a lot on your plate. ​That’s why filing early is one of my best FAFSA tips: marking this off your to-do list means one less thing to worry about during a stressful time.

​When should you file the FAFSA?

Some families may want to delay filing the FAFSA if, for example, they expect significant changes to income within the next few months. But generally speaking, it’s best to file as soon as possible after the FAFSA opens on October 1.

As mentioned, filing early may help reduce your stress level, but there’s another important reason to file as soon as possible. Some college financial aid, like federal work study, is awarded on a first come-first serve basis. Students who file their FAFSA early are much more likely to get these types of financial aid than students who apply later. So even though the official deadline to file the FAFSA is June 30, you shouldn’t procrastinate on submitting your FAFSA.

​FAFSA Tip #2: Be Prepared

Sure, filing the FAFSA isn’t fun, but the process typically only takes 30-45 minutes. You can move things along a little faster by ​getting some items ready beforehand.

​Get your FSA IDs

​If you’re filing the FAFSA online, you and your child will first need to create FSA IDs. The IDs ​include a username and password that you must use ​to access and file the FAFSA​. The parental FSA ID allows parents to access their child’s FAFSA and submit information even if their child isn’t present. Th​at’s helpful if your child doesn’t live with you full-time. So be sure you have your FSA ID in hand before you begin your application.

​Get your college codes

​​The FAFSA will ask you to list the colleges you want to receive your FAFSA information. Each college in the United States has a unique five digit code; you’ll put these college codes on your FAFSA application. You can find the list of college codes at the Department of Education website. To save time when completing the FAFSA, make a list of the codes you need beforehand.

​Get your checkbook

Filing the FAFSA is free, but you’ll be asked the current balances of your checking and savings accounts. Make sure you have your check register or current bank statement on hand, so you don’t have to go look for this information after you start the process of filing the FAFSA.

​FAFSA Tip #3: Know the Lingo

Another reason parents dread the FAFSA is because, like tax forms, there are a lot of unfamiliar terms and acronyms on the FAFSA. SAR, EFC, dependency status – FAFSA vocabulary can make your head spin. It helps if you learn some key terms before you sit down to complete the FAFSA.

​Dependency status

One of the first things the FAFSA seeks to determine is your child’s dependency status. Your child is considered a dependent student if they’re under 24, unmarried, enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program and are claimed as a dependent on your income taxes. If your child is over 24, married, a veteran or in graduate school, they’re classified as an independent student.

Dependency status is important because it determines the information that must be included on the FAFSA. A dependent student must include ​their parents’ financial information on the FAFSA. Independent students, in contrast, aren’t required to report their parents’ financial information on the FAFSA. ​

​Expected family contribution

Information on the FAFSA also determines your child’s expected family contribution, or EFC. This is the amount your child is expected to pay towards his or her education. For dependent students, EFC is based on several factors, including parental income. EFC also takes into account the number of people in a household and how many children in the family will be in college at the same time.

​Student aid report

You can find your EFC on your child’s student aid report, or SAR. The SAR arrives several weeks after you submit the FAFSA and is basically a summary of the information on your FAFSA application. ​Another great FAFSA tip: review your SAR carefully, making sure there aren’t any mistakes. Incorrect information on the SAR could affect how much financial aid your child gets, so it’s important the information is accurate.

So, what happens after you get your SAR? Nothing, at least for a while. Which is why you need to follow ​FAFSA tip #4.

​FAFSA Tip #4: Be Patient

If you file your FAFSA early, in October or November, it could take months to find out how much financial aid your child might get. I know that’s frustrating. It may help to understand what’s happening during that time.

Once you submit your FAFSA, the information is sent to the schools listed on your application. Financial aid officers at each school then determine how much aid you’re eligible to receive. These advisers look for money from three sources.

​Three sources of financial aid

​Federal financial aid

The first source of financial aid is the federal financial aid system. The federal government sets rules for which students can receive each type of aid, as well as how much of each type of aid. College financial aid officers look to the information on your FAFSA to determine where you fall within the federal financial aid guidelines.

​State financial aid

The second source of money college financial aid officers look to is your state’s financial aid system. Most states have financial aid for college students, usually given out in the form of grants. State governments set rules for which students can receive state aid; these rules usually require you to be a legal resident of the state. If ​schools in your home state are on your FAFSA list, financial aid officers at those schools will check to see if you’re eligible for state financial aid.

​Institutional aid

The third source of financial aid is the college itself. Most colleges and universities have some sort of financial aid, which is known as institutional aid. Institutional aid includes things like grants and tuition waivers. If a school on your FAFSA list has these types of programs, financial aid officers will determine if you qualify for this aid.

​The financial aid award letter

In addition to determining how much aid each student is eligible to receive, financial aid officers must take into account things like the total amount of financial aid available and how many students they expect to be enrolled in school each year.

Once financial aid officers have figured all this out, they create a financial aid package for each student. The​y send each student an award letter describing all the financial aid a student will receive if they attend that school.

So, as you can see, this is a fairly complex process. It may seem like nothing is happening in the weeks and months after filing your FAFSA. Just try to be patient and know financial aid officers are working to maximize your financial aid award.

​FAFSA Tip #5: Get Free Help

Remember, it doesn’t cost anything to file the FAFSA. There are businesses that will offer to help you with the FAFSA for a fee. These businesses don’t do anything you can’t do yourself. And good news: if you do need help, you can get it for free.

​Free FAFSA help: The Federal Student Aid Information Center​​​

One resource for free FAFSA help is the Federal Student Aid Information Center. This is sponsored by the federal Department of Education, the agency that produces the FAFSA, which makes the FSAIC a great resource. Millions of people call the FSAIC each year to get help completing the FAFSA. The number to the toll-free hotline is 1-800-433-3243.

​Free FAFSA help: FAFSA Day

Depending on where you live, you can get free help on FAFSA Day (or, in the case of one of my local colleges, FAFSA Night). This is an annual event held in several states. At FAFSA Day, families get to meet with college financial aid advisers and ask questions about the FAFSA.

One example of this kind of event is Missouri’s FAFSA Frenzy. Sponsored in part by the Missouri Department of Higher Education, FAFSA Frenzy is held each year at nearly 200 high schools, colleges and community sites across the state. At these events, financial aid advisers, high school counselors, and others help students and families complete the FAFSA. ​

If you don’t live in a state that holds a FAFSA Day event, you may still be able to get free help with your FAFSA. Some community colleges offer free FAFSA workshops each year. And don’t forget resources offered at your high school. If your school has guidance counselors, they may be able to help you fill out the FAFSA or know other places you can go for some free FAFSA help.

So, have you filed your FAFSA for the upcoming school year? How was the experience? Share your story​ in the comments. Or just drop in to ask any questions you have about the FAFSA or planning for college.

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