Whether you’re a parent or a student, if you’re going to college next year (parents-you’re staying home, it just feels like you’re going to college) you need to know about the FAFSA. FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. A very important word here is FREE. You see, there are a lot of websites that will say they’ll do the FAFSA for you, but you have to pay them. The real FAFSA application is free.
The first thing you want to do is make sure that you’re using the correct website. Here’s the address: http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/index.htm. Notice that it doesn’t have a .com or .org in the address. Make sure you go to the right place.
When you complete the FAFSA application, you’re going to want to have all of your information ready. It’s a pain in the behind to get started and then stop and start a million times. Do yourself a favor and print out a copy of the FAFSA application before you start. Here’s a link to that too: http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/fotw1112/pdf/PdfFafsa11-12.pdf
Did you look at that application? That’s for last year. If you’re looking to do the FAFSA for starting school in September of 2012, you won’t be able to complete that form until after January 1. You’re going to need your tax information for 2011 also, so you should really do your tax returns before you file your FAFSA. You can submit them with estimates based upon last year, but you’re really much better off doing your taxes first if it’s at all possible.
Look at the state deadlines listed to the right of the application. Don’t ignore those. For example: I’m in Missouri, it says April 1 is the date by which the application should be received and has a little # meaning that priority is given to applications received by that date. But make sure you check the deadline for the school you’re applying to as well. Missouri as a state has a deadline of April 1, but if you’re applying to Washington University here in St. Louis, they’ve got a FAFSA deadline of January 30th. Make sure you know those deadlines.
Part of the application process that confuses people is the sections about the student and the parents. FAFSA asks questions with the assumption that the student is filling out the form. The whole first section is for the student. This really messes up parents who are completing the form because it asks questions like, Are you married? Do your children receive more than half of their support from you? As a mom myself, I’m answering, yes, I am married and of course I support my children. Oops! Those are all in the section for the student to fill out. My daughter is not married and she has no children to support—big difference. Don’t make my mistakes! Remember, not all people applying to college are kids in still high school.
Parents will get to answer questions starting on page 6. But it’s all asked like the student is filling out the form—what is your parent’s address? And things like that. Outside of the address part, your kids aren’t going to know most of those answers, especially the financial information. They’ll need your help with that.
One question that I have been asked a few too many times is, “Should I just lie about my income?” No, you shouldn’t. The colleges have a verification process for granting financial aid, in most cases you’ll be asked to provide an actual copy of your income tax return. By lying on the FAFSA, not only do you risk losing your potential financial aid—you could also risk losing admission to the school as well. It’s just not worth it.
When you’ve finished the FAFSA application and submitted it, you’ll get your SAR report which basically tells you how much they think you are able to pay towards your college tuition this year. Let me give you a fair warning: whatever you think you are able to pay for tuition, your SAR score will be about twice that amount. Be prepared for that shock, but don’t let it deter you from applying for college. Remember that even though the FAFSA report might say you can afford more than you think you can—the different schools have different programs so you have a good chance of finding a school that has a more generous financial aid program.
One final thing, you might think that your income is too high for you to receive financial aid and so you shouldn’t even apply. The year my son started college, we didn’t really qualify for financial aid, but had submitted the FAFSA application anyway. Later, my husband lost his job and we were afraid that we wouldn’t be able to pay the tuition. Because we had completed the FAFSA, our son’s school adjusted his scholarship based upon my husband’s new situation. They would not have done that if we didn’t have the FAFSA filed. Even if you think you don’t qualify, it could very well be worth your while to do the application.