College finances

10 Common Mistakes Made on the FAFSA

When completing the FAFSA form it’s important to follow directions carefully and with over 100 fields, anyone can make mistakes. Here are a few tips to help you get started and some common mistakes to avoid. 

Starting Tips:
1. Use the Correct Form – The correct FAFSA form can be found at fafsa.gov. This form is FREE to fill out. Don’t ever pay for a FAFSA form!

2. Federal Student Aid ID – Your student needs to obtain a Federal Student Aid ID number and use their ID number at the start of the form.

3. IRS Data Retrieval Tool – When asked, use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to attach tax returns to the FAFSA form.

4. Prior-Prior Tax Returns – FAFSA will ask for the parent’s prior-prior year tax return. In other words, the 2017 tax return is required for the 2019 application.

Top Ten Mistakes to Avoid:
1. File Early and On Time – The form opens on October 1 and some college programs have limited funding that could run out if not applied for early.

2. Use Correct Social Security Number and Driver’s License Numbers – Changing the social security number is the only mistake that cannot be corrected. If the wrong SS number is used, a new form must be generated.

3. Make Sure To Select Colleges to Send FAFSA Form To – Up to ten schools can be selected and will be sent your student’s FAFSA. If the schools are not selected, then your student won’t be eligible for financial aid.

4. Use Student’s Full Legal Name – The student’s name must be consistent with what is on the parents tax return

5. Use Correct Marital Status – Correct listings of both parent’s marital status is a must. If one or both parents are remarried, that information must be included as well.

6. Don’t Leave Blank Fields – Leaving too many fields blank can disqualify an applicant.

7. Males Register for Selective Service – Failure to register for Selective Service for males 18-25 can disqualify an applicant. Registration can be taken care of while filling out FAFSA.

8. Fill out the FAFSA Form Every Year – FAFSA must be filled out every year student attends college.

9. Calculate the HouseHold Dependents Correctly – If the student is attending college are they considered a dependent? Yes! If parents are providing support for that student, they are considered dependents.

10. Sign the FAFSA Form – Not signing FAFSA report is the biggest mistake made. The form is signed using the Federal Student Aid ID number (FSA ID).

But don’t worry, almost all mistakes can be corrected by logging into your student’s myFAFSA page and selecting the category called Make FAFSA Corrections.

Saving for College – Is That the Best Bet?

How best to spend money you have allocated to education? Private school? Tutors? Test prep? College fund? Do you take family vacations to broaden your child’s worldview? Do they do summer enrichment camps? Seeds of Peace? There is no one answer. It’s a gamble really.

Suppose you put away money in a 529 account and there is a family emergency, can you take out that money without penalty?

What if your child winds up going to an in-state school and you don’t qualify for financial aid? You might wind up paying more than a private school with a good endowment.

I am finding the Net Price calculator helpful in breaking down college prices. There is one on the website of each college and university. After you plug in your basic household income figures, the college will estimate how much they expect you to pay. That figure is broken down into three separate categories: parent contribution, student work-study, and student loan. These estimates don’t include merit money.

The amount of student loan they expected students to take out is roughly between $3,000 – $5,500 freshman year.

I was relieved when I read the figure. I don’t feel it will put students in too much debt after graduation. It might even be a healthy amount to pay off. I paid off my college loan after graduation every month and it was a real motivation for me to stay employed. I also did work/study when I was in college and felt it was a good way to gain job experience, make pocket money and purchase textbooks.

There are many scholarships beyond merit, but they take time to find. Fastweb.com is a website that guides students towards scholarships. The students are asked details about themselves, their interests and academic strengths. Then a list of potential scholarship matches is calculated. The scholarships range from $1,000 to $20,000. These scholarships in most cases can be applied to any college the student attends. The scholarships are very broad from corporate scholarships offered by Coca-Cola to regional and local scholarships. My favorite being The National Rice Month Scholarship, where students who live in states that produce rice can submit a 500-word essay about how rice has affected their lives.

I receive daily emails from fastweb.com with hand-picked scholarships that my daughter might qualify for. If the student has time, they can fill out multiple scholarship applications every day. Most involve writing short essays. At this point with college applications due in January as well as keeping up with senior year academics, there is not much time for these additional applications. So far, Sydney has just applied for one $1000 scholarship. Hopefully, after the new year and all the applications are in, she will apply for more.

I’m betting we’ll find a college that is not only a good fit for our daughter academically and socially, but a good fit for our family financially.

The Early Decision Decision

My daughter Sydney decided to apply Early Decision to her top college. It turned into more of a family decision and a family effort to get out the early application. The deadline being November first.

About four o’clock on Sunday, my tenth-grade son who had burrowed himself in his room all weekend carefully tiptoed between his angst-ridden sister and frustrated father as they proofread her essay for a final time.

“Should I get my hopes up about tonight?” he whispered to me. We had promised a family dinner at his favorite restaurant once his sister submitted, partly to celebrate her submission and partly to thank him for his patience at being ignored during this college frenzy. We’d thought the application would have been done by Saturday morning but Sydney still wanted one more pass at the written supplements, needed to format the essay for the Common App, write Additional Comments, and create a resume for her Slideroom. She had prepped most everything but there were so many more details. Her dad and I took turns reading over things but between the application, play rehearsal and her full load of twelfth-grade homework, she was exhausted. We all were.

Sydney

I can’t help feeling that some of the household stress was based on the realization that if she gets into this college, it’s binding. She will be going. No turning back. How do you make that choice so early in your senior year? Why make that choice? Well, because the odds are much better to get in with Early Decision. In her case, 48% of applicants are admitted during Early Decision, whereas 15% are admitted during regular decision. It seemed like the best bet.

“If you got into all the colleges you loved and money was no object, would this still be your first pick?” I asked. “I can always change my mind, right?” she laughed, “Let’s do this.” So I retrieved my credit card, we paid the fee and she signed her final signature. It was seven-thirty and we were really hungry. We gathered around as she hit the submit button. And it was decided.

The evening ended in celebration at our favorite Mexican restaurant. The staff who have known Sydney since she was a baby brought over a dessert with a candle. We celebrated her hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Wherever she winds up will be the right place. This weekend’s Early Decision was the only first step. There will be many more decisions and celebrations to follow.

Gardening With the Net Price Calculator

With our FAFSA report and CSS profile complete, I started to dig into the Net Price Calculator. Each college and university is required by law to have a Net Price Calculator on their website. About 200 are sponsored by the College Board. The College Board saves your information and makes it easy to estimate your “Calculated Family Contribution.” The other colleges require you to put in basic income and family information.

Once I unearthed our Calculated Family Contribution for our top ten schools, I looked up, bug-eyed, from the computer.

“Give me the rose and the thorn,” my daughter said, using an expression from her counseling class at school.

“Okay, your top school wants to give you a really decent amount of aid. Your second choice, zero aid. Ouch. And your third choice something in between.” The rose, the thorn, and the stem.

But now I wanted to dig deeper. I started checking out lots of schools. Schools we’d never even considered. At the end of the day I think I had looked at about 40 schools, spent over six hours and too much caffeine. It was addicting.

“That’s nothing,” a dad of one of my daughter’s friends told me the next morning. “I ran the numbers for eighty-five schools and I’m still searching.”

The majority of colleges were around the same amount, but there were extremes. I called the top three choice schools asking how accurate those calculations were. The first school told me if my amounts entered were accurate then their calculation would be accurate. The second school, offering us no aid, suggested my daughter might be eligible for merit scholarships, which are not a part of the Net Price Calculations. And the third school said their final package could vary from their calculations based on other factors. I asked if they could tell me what other factors those might be. They said no.

My daughter is planning on applying Early Decision to her top school. This is very tricky since it’s a binding contract financially and I will have to gamble that those estimates are correct. I wonder if it’s better to hold off and have her apply regular decision so that we can weigh the options? Or have her apply Early Decision to her third choice which indicated the best financial aid package, but with unknown factors attached?

We have a week to make up our minds. The Early Decision deadline is November 1. It’s a gamble, that’s for sure. So with a week to go, maybe I’ll rustle around in those rose bushes some more.

Sunday Morning Coffee, the FAFSA Report and a Box of Kleenex

Yesterday was the second Sunday morning I woke up early to fill out financial aid applications for college. A friend had emailed me the night before asking, “I filled in the FAFSA report and CSS report, besides making sure the girls turn in their applications on time, is that all we have to do?”

Technically, the financial aid applications are designed for the students to fill out. But they require so much detail of household finances, it definitely seems like a parent’s job.

The most important thing to know ahead of time is that the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and CSS (College Scholarship Service Profile) require your tax return two years back. In other words, if the student enters college in the 2018-2019 school year, you will use your 2016 tax return. For my son, who will be entering college in the 2020-2021 year, we will use the 2018 tax return. This information is crucial. You may want to think ahead as you enter that tax year and consider that those spendings and earnings will be reviewed for financial aid.

So allow yourself some uninterrupted hours. The FAFSA report goes quickly, but the CSS takes more time. Then the day after you submit the CSS, some colleges ask for several documents to be uploaded, many of these requiring your child’s signature. Be prepared to pay a $9 processing fee and $16 per school for CSS. The FAFSA report is free.

As I confirmed the list of colleges we were sending the report to, ten for us, I started to tear up. All the college prep so far has been super fun. College tours with the family, looking through colorful brochures, imagining how my California daughter might endure a winter in Maine. But sending off our taxes so that we might get money to actually send our daughter to one of these places was too much for me. I looked at her hand-picked college list and pictured her 3,000 miles away. She only had one close-to-home college on her list, and that was a safety school. I listened to her read her college essay out loud as her brother played basketball nearby. I imagined the house without her. I couldn’t.

So it wasn’t the act of digging up our finances that was hard, it was hitting the submit button and realizing the actual road to her moving on was in play. Technically my friend was right, my only responsibilities are filling out the forms and helping her meet the application deadlines. But it’s not the only thing I need to do. Emotionally prepping for her to leave home… that will be the hardest job of all.

 

 

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