Capstone College and Career Advising

Filling out the FAFSA

January 13th, 2015 by

Filling out student aid applications is kind of like preparing your income taxes: Nobody really likes to do it, but everybody likes getting that nice big refund check a few months later.

If you have a child heading to college next fall, preparing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) could deliver the equivalent of that tax refund.  Students must complete a FAFSA to be considered not just for federal student aid, but for many individual college financial aid packages and even some scholarships. The hours you spend doing FAFSA could potentially return thousands of dollars for your child’s education.

And the time to do the FAFSA is now. The online forms, at www.FAFSA.ed.gov , went live January 1. And since much aid is given out on a first-come, first-served basis, the early birds do particularly well. Those who complete the form by the end of March receive an average of twice as much grant money as those who file later in the spring, a story in The New York Times asserted recently.

What is the FAFSA, exactly? It’s a form that collects financial information about college students and, if the students are dependents, their parents. The answers you supply on this form are used to determine how much your student qualifies for in federal grants, work-study awards and loans. Colleges also use FAFSA information to determine your “expected family contribution,” which helps them determine how much tuition assistance you may be offered from individual schools.

I always suggest that families fill out the form, even if they think they have too much in income or assets to qualify for any assistance. For one thing, the FAFSA considers such factors as number of siblings attending college and the age and marital status of the parents, so you may qualify for aid you weren’t expecting.

Also, some assets don’t enter the equation. The value of the family’s primary home and the parents’ retirement plans are not taken into consideration, for instance.

The tricky part about completing your FAFSA promptly, however, is having all the necessary tax information on hand. Many of us don’t get all our necessary documents until early February. But there are a couple of ways around that.

First, you are allowed to complete the FAFSA with estimates of your income and assets. If your income is fairly stable from year to year, you may wish to use your 2013 tax return, or you may prefer to use the final pay stub of 2014. When you file the FAFSA online, you have the option to request an email reminding you to update the forms with final tax information.

Second, do your 2014 taxes as soon as you have all the data. Once you’ve filed your return, you can often transfer your tax data into the FAFSA directly from online IRS forms. However, you will probably not be able to use that tool until early to mid-February, so if you are set on finishing the FAFSA soon, the estimate is the way to go.