FAFSA

10 Common Mistakes Made on the FAFSA

By Kendell Shaffer

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.

Tips for Filling Out the FAFSA

By Kendell Shaffer

When I set out to fill out my daughter’s FAFSA report last year, I gave myself the entire day. In reality, it takes about three to five hours, but I know if I have other things scheduled, I’ll never finish.

They design the FAFSA report for students to fill out, but since household financial information is usually handled by the parents, it’s best if the parents are hands on, or fill even out the forms for their students.
The FAFSA reports opens on October 1. I always like to apply for financial aid as early as possible. Getting the FAFSA report out of the way leaves your student and family more time to focus on applications. 

It’s very important when filling out the FAFSA report, that you use the correct report from www.fafsa.ed.gov. This report is free to submit. There are some misleading sites that charge the student to submit the FAFSA report, those are incorrect and please don’t get caught up in paying for a form that‘s intended to be free. 

Gather the documents you and your student will need prior to filling out the report. There is nothing more frustrating than being in the middle of a long form, having to get up and hunt for your files for a related document. These documents are needed:

  • Federal Student Aid ID
  • Student’s Social Security Number 
  • Student’s Driver’s License Number
  • Student’s Alien Registration Number, if not a US Citizen
  • Federal School Codes
  • Bank Statements (checking and savings for both students and parents)
  • Untaxed Income Records
  • Asset Records (including mortgage info and date of house purchase)
  • Federal Tax Returns (for both students and parents)

You might find that some private colleges will ask the student to fill out the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. The same documents are needed, so keep these documents nearby. Also, schools may need further information later on down the line, so it’s best to keep these docs handy. It’s no fun to dig back into your files with short notice for another item. 

The same documents are needed, so keep these documents nearby. Also, schools may need further information later on down the line, so it’s best to keep these docs handy. It’s no fun to dig back into your files with short notice for another item. 

And don’t be afraid to ask for help! There are folks standing by to answer questions. FAFSA has a great support line. Most college financial aid offices will help. Or talk to friends who are also filling out these forms, especially friends who have a student who applied to college a year ago. They are now experts and you will be too next year. I have also heard about FAFSA parties where several parents spend the day together filling out the FAFSA forms. That way if questions come up, others in the room can help. 

For me the form was easy to fill out but the reality of my daughter going to college was. The FAFSA report was the first step we took as a family to start the college application process which kicked off a very exciting time in our household.

A Comprehensive Guide to Financial Aid

By Thomas Broderick

College sure is expensive. How expensive is it, you ask? Well, the four-year tuition at America’s priciest schools exceeds the nation’s median home price. Yep, some college degrees cost more than houses. Fear not; most colleges are nowhere as expensive, especially public schools where you qualify for in-state tuition. Even so, rising prices mean that in 2019, even ‘cheap’ schools put a financial strain on students and their families.

That’s why you need to spend a LONG TIME researching which school can give you the best bang for your tuition buck. But that’s another article.

Today, I want to talk with you about financial aid and paying for school. Your financial aid journey begins the moment you start researching colleges. Use the following steps to ensure that you can attend the best school at the lowest out-of-pocket price.

Talk to Your Family

Your first step involves determining what, if anything, your family will contribute to your college education. Money can be an awkward topic, but you need to have an honest conversation. The earlier you do this, the sooner you know how much money you need to raise through grants, scholarships, and/or loans.

Fill Out the FAFSA

No matter the amount of money your family has set aside for college, your first stop for financial aid begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA, a financial questionnaire, determines your eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs. You can learn more about each of these financial aid opportunities in later sections.

Take a minute to review some essential FAFSA information:

  • Application Deadlines: You can submit the FAFSA for the 2020-2021 academic year between October 1st, 2019 and June 30th, 2020. Of, course, the sooner you file the FAFSA, the sooner you receive your results.
  • Requirements: To apply, you must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
  • File as Independent?: Certain applicants under the age of 24 can file as an independent, meaning that the FAFSA does not consider their parents’ finances when making its determination.
  • Materials: When you apply, you need you and/or your families tax returns for the previous year. You may need other records if your family has other investments such as stocks, a business, etc.
  • Determination: The FAFSA doesn’t say whether you do or do not qualify for financial aid. It merely reports how much you or your family can contribute to your education in the coming year. FAFSA calls this amount your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
    • What this means is that at some cheaper schools you may not qualify for aid, but at more expensive schools, you do.
  • Reapply: To qualify for aid under the FAFSA, you must reapply each year using a special FSA ID you receive when you first register. (Don’t lose this ID!)

Now that you know some FAFSA basics, let’s explore different types of financial aid. Each section begins with the kind of aid directly related to the FAFSA.

Research Scholarships & Grants

Federal Grants

If your EFC qualifies you for aid at your college, you may receive a Pell Grant, approximately $6,000. A Pell Grant can go towards any education expenses if there is money left over after you pay tuition, fees, and housing. You can receive a Pell Grant for up to six years if you remain FAFSA eligible.

State Scholarships & Grants

Does your state have a lottery? If so, it might use some of that money to sponsor a lottery scholarship or grant program that pays a portion of your college tuition as long as you attend college within the state. To qualify, you may need to earn a specific GPA or standardized test score. Also, after you start college, maintain good grades to ensure that your scholarship renews.

Even if your state does not have such a program, other financial incentives at the state level may qualify you for special aid. Check with your school’s guidance counselor to learn about opportunities.

College-Specific Scholarships & Grants

As you research colleges, pay close attention to the financial aid they provide eligible students. Schools with large endowments often award generous financial aid packages to students with financial need or those with excellent academic records.

Private Scholarships & Grants

Finally, we arrive at what may be your most significant scholarship and grant opportunity. Navigating scholarships may seem like a daunting task, but like your college search, the effort will have positive results.

If you need some help getting started, focus on subject-specific scholarships and grants, especially if you plan to major in a STEM-related field. Subject-specific scholarships limit the application pool, increasing your chances. They also give you the opportunity to highlight your passions and academic achievements.

When it comes to scholarships and grants, you may come across many scholarship/grant hybrids. These awards have both academic and financial requirements. Some scholarships in this category take applications only from members of a specific minority group.

Consider Work-Study Programs

Federal Work-Study

The FAFSA’s work-study program connects eligible students with part-time employment either on or off campus. This program caps the number of hours students work and imposes different rules for undergraduate and graduate students.

School Work-Study

Many schools offer similar work-study programs to help students pay for college. In these cases, students work part-time for their schools. Some schools reserve work-study programs for students with financial need, while others allow all interested students to participate. In some cases, reimbursement may come in the form of tuition reduction or a meal plan. In these cases, students do not receive a traditional paycheck.

Be Wary of (Most) Loans

Federally Backed Loans

First off, there are two types of loans you may qualify for under the FAFSA:

  • Subsidized Loans: These loans do not incur interest during your time in school.
  • Unsubsidized Loans: These loans do incur interest during your time in school.

Subsidized loans are your best bet, as interest can add thousands of dollars to your loan and lengthen the time you need to pay it back. However, all federal loans typically offer better interest rates than private loans. The FAFSA also caps the amount of subsidized and unsubsidized loans you can take out each year. 

Private Loans

Finally, we arrive at private loans. There are hundreds of lending institutions out there willing to loan you tens of thousands of dollars. “Just sign here,” they say, no doubt like the Devil bargaining for your immortal soul.

Okay, not all private lenders are the Devil, but private loans are – without a doubt – the riskiest form of financial aid that a college student can use. First off, student loans, even the FAFSA ones, never go away, even if students declare bankruptcy later in life. Also, private lenders typically loan much larger sums than federally-backed loans, meaning that young students can rack up massive amounts of debt in a short amount of time.

My advice: be wary of private loans and use them as a last resort.

Learn More About Military Service

Are you thinking about joining the military after high school? If you serve, you qualify for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. In a nutshell, military personnel and veterans with at least 30 days of active duty service receive some tuition benefits. These benefits max out after three years of service. Other benefits include housing allowances and tuition discounts for spouses and children. The law is complex, and many stipulations apply.

Joining the military is not a light decision. Weigh your options carefully and discuss them with adults you trust.

Final Thoughts

You are incredibly fortunate: you have thousands of financial aid opportunities at your fingertips! By starting work now, you can attend your dream college without incurring debt, setting you up for financial, professional, and personal success later in life.

Does Your Student Qualify for Financial Aid?

By Kendell Shaffer
Federal Student Aid is determined by the FAFSA report. To see if your student will qualify for financial aid, have them go through the following list:
  • Your student needs to have completed their high school education either with a diploma or GED.
  • The student must have been accepted by a college or university to receive aid. (They will apply for the aid before being accepted to a school).
  • Male students between 18-25 must register with the Selective Service.
  • The student needs a valid Social Security number.
  • The student agrees that they are not in default of a Federal Student Loan and agrees to use the federal student aid for educational purposes only.
  • The students will maintain satisfactory academic progress.
  • The student must be a US citizen, hold a Green Card, have an arrival-departure record, Battered Immigrant Status or a T-Visa.
Once the student confirms all the above, they can fill out the FAFSA report. The FAFSA report factors in real estate, income and other assets and it will determine the family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
Next take the EFC and subtract the total cost for the school (including fees and room and board). The sum determines your student’s financial need. The aid offered by schools could be in the form of scholarship, Federal Pell Grants, Federal work-study or subsidized direct loans.
Merit-Based Aid differs from financial aid. It is based on your student’s academic achievements and will be offered to the student regardless if they qualify for financial aid.
So how do you determine if you qualify for financial aid? NetPrice Calculators on the financial aid page of every college and university website should help. There you are asked to plug in your student’s EFC number and the Net Price Calculator will calculate your estimated Financial Aid for that specific school.
Many factors apply including owning your home and price of living in your hometown. Financial Aid offices at most colleges and universities can be helpful to parents if you have specific questions.
It’s best to encourage your student to apply to all levels of colleges, private and state. Where one school may give them a full scholarship, the next college may give them nothing. We can’t determine the amount of aid before acceptance, but filling out the FAFSA and using the Net Price calculates are your first steps in understanding if you will qualify at all.

What is the FAFSA and Why Is It Important?

By Kendell Shaffer

The Free Application For Federal Student Aid otherwise known as the  FAFSA report  is the gatekeeper to college and university financial aid. Each family must fill out the report every college year. The first time it’s filled out is the year the student applies to college. The reports open on October 1. The application is FREE to fill out for all families and every college and university uses the same application so the application only needs to be submitted one time. When submitting you will select which colleges you would like the report to be sent. Additional colleges can receive the information at any time.

The FAFSA report determines the family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) based on several items such as bank accounts, income and properties owned. Students are encouraged to fill out the FAFSA report, but the language and details may not be something the student understands, so parental support is important. Some parents end up filling out the form for their student, especially the first year while the student is focusing on their college applications. But educating your student on financial documents not only makes them aware of your family’s financial situation but also gives them an introduction to similar applications they eventually will take on.

With the inherent costs of college, it’s not a bad idea to talk early about the reality of your family finances and how it will affect paying for college. There is nothing worse than your child getting into their dream school then later find you can’t afford to send them. Letting your child take part in these realities of finances will be helpful to all of you.

Several things are important when preparing the report and I suggest doing the worksheet beforehand. Make sure you have gathered all the items needed before starting as it will be easier than stopping and searching for figures. It’s a good idea to keep a log of specific figures that won’t change such as the year you purchased your home, the price you paid, the address of your employer, social security numbers.

I left myself an entire weekend day to fill out the FAFSA. That sounds intimidating, but it was necessary for me to gather all the info, fill out the worksheet and then fill out the online form. It’s not the easiest process in the world, but not the hardest either. The hardest part for me was realizing that my child was indeed heading off to college.

Once you fill out the report and submit, you will immediately receive an email from FAFSA with your EFC figure. This is the figure the colleges use to determine how much financial aid they might offer your student.

You will need to apply for financial aid each year your student is in college because family finances could change. Make sure you mark this on your calendar. And if you happen to have one student in college, your EFC will change for the second child since you are already paying one college tuition.

Negotiating for Financial Aid. Does it Work to Call the FA Office?

By Kendell Shaffer

I woke up this morning in a cold sweat. I’d just had a nightmare about calling the financial aid office of my daughter’s top school. In reality, I have not made the call yet. But I plan to and I am strategizing just how to do that.

In talking to other parents who have gone through this before me, I’ve learned the following tips: When dealing with financial aid officers, etiquette applies. Always be polite.  Always express your excitement that your student was accepted to their school. Always thank the school for the aid they have already offered.

Introduce comparative offers. Ask if the school could consider matching the offers. If there are no other offers to compare to, then ask if they can offer more aid which might entail explaining your financial situation.

Other advise I have received is to have your child write and call the financial aid office first. If the desire for more aid comes from the student, the school sees the student’s commitment. The parent should also call and email the financial aid office too because most likely the financial aid is based on the parents income and tax return which might need explanation.

Sometimes it’s necessary to have your child’s college counselor email or call on your child’s behalf. You might need as many advocates as possible if a lot of need is required.

The biggest tip I’ve learned is being to leverage offers. In other words, if your child received $5,000 in aid from their first choice school and $25,000 aid from their second choice school, the idea is to call the first choice school and tell them that your child very much wants to attend their college, that it’s the first choice, but they have received a better offer from another school. Then ask if the first school can match that offer. In some cases they may ask you to forward the other offer to them. They may match the offer or up their offer or just leave their offer untouched.

It’s hard enough to get through the application process and the emotion of offers coming in or being denied, but throwing the financial aid into the mix for me is the hardest part.

Too Many Colleges, Too Little Time

By Kendell Shaffer

There are currently about 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States. How on earth do you pick the right one for your child? In our house we started with our alma mater, New York University. Sydney’s dad went there for grad school and I went for undergrad. Every trip we made to NYC we’d pass NYU and retell stories of our past. When she and I and her brother did the official tour last Spring, she declared that NYU was the school for her. But as she visited other schools, NYU fell further down the list. In the end, she won’t even be applying there.

She learned universities meant larger classes and a larger student population. Gradually, small liberal arts colleges sounded more appealing. And we looked at some great ones in person and online, most of them in rural areas. There is a helpful book, Colleges That Change Lives, where we read about many we’d never heard of.

The more rural the schools, the more Sydney realized she was a city girl. She decided she wanted a small college in a big city. That didn’t leave a lot of options, but one thing that started to appeal was an all women’s college. I attended an all girl high school and a women’s college was the last thing I would have wanted. But she saw the benefits. She’d be able to go to a selective school, not have to compete with men to get in or during classes and she’d have better shots at leadership positions. She started to focus on women’s colleges as first choices. This all came about as she took the time to realize what was important to her in a school. It never would have been something I suggested.

As her list narrowed we needed to consider the finances. Luckily most of her schools were part of the list of colleges that meet 100% of financial need. The Net Price Calculator helped us to rule out certain ones and focus on some that we might not have considered before.

She didn’t want to go to school in Southern California where she grew up, although when we toured UCLA, she said, “there is nothing wrong with this school.” Except the fact that they had 102,000 applications last year for 6,000 spots! Looking at acceptance rates sometimes puts things into perspective.

If you ask my son what college he wants to attend, he will say NYU. He is pretty certain of it although he’s only in tenth grade. I imagine he will go through a series of discoveries as well and change his mind too. Or maybe not. With over 5,000 colleges to chose from you’d think he could find one that fits. He only needs one.

Gardening With the Net Price Calculator

By Kendell Shaffer

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

By Kendell Shaffer

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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