With the price of a college education rapidly rising over the
last decade, and in the current difficult economic times,
students and families are relying on financial aid more heavily
now than ever before. In 2010-11, for example, undergraduate
students received an average of $12,455 per full-time equivalent
student in financial aid, according to the College Board.
But how can you get a share of those funds? Time to get to know
FAFSA - Free Application for Federal Student Aid - the gateway
through which students and their families can access the millions
of dollars in grants, federal loans and tax breaks for which they
may be eligible.
FAFSA is exactly as the name suggests: a FREE process to apply
for financial aid for undergraduate and graduate school.
Administered by the U.S. Department of Education, FAFSA, like
many government programs, can be user-friendly at times and
confusing at others. Just ask FPA member David A. Emery, CFP®,
CDFA, CCPS. "It takes time and isn't always as straightforward as
you think," said Emery, who has plenty of first-hand experience
with the FAFSA, having helped financial planning clients and his
own children through the process. "You only get one chance at the
financial aid process, so you really have to be sure to do it
His best advice for navigating the FAFSA form to give yourself
the best chance of getting the aid you seek:
Prepare in advance.
First, get familiar with the FAFSA by combing through the
fafsa.ed.gov website , so you know what to expect each step of
the way. Then find out which documents you will need to submit
as part of the application, such as tax returns (for parents
and student), W-2 forms, comprehensive records of assets and
debts, Social Security numbers, etc. and gather them in
advance. Next learn all you can about specific financial aid
programs and requirements at the schools to which you plan to
apply. Search the Web and talk to the admissions department
representatives at those schools to find out what aid may be
available via both private and public sources.
Emery recommends beginning the application process as close to
the Jan. 1 opening date as possible to accommodate potential
snags in the process. Filing late leaves little room for error.
Also, keep in mind that with some aid programs, access to funds
is first-come, first-serve.
Be attentive to detail.
Don't let the nuances of the FAFSA process trip you up. Be
aware of key details, such as the limitation on the number of
schools for which a person can apply for aid (10), which assets
to report (certain retirement plan assets needn't be reported,
for example), and the requirement that parents and students
each have a unique FAFSA login and PIN. Because the same PIN
number is used from year to year, safe keeping of that number
is important as it is a difficult process to obtain a new
Meet all deadlines and program requirements.
Financial aid deadlines can vary by state and by institution.
Be sure to keep those dates straight. And be sure to provide
everything the application, and the institution, request.
Ask for help.
You're bound to have questions about the FAFSA process. Seek
answers from a school counselor or the financial aid office at
the institution to which you're applying. You can also tap
FAFSA's online chatroom (look for the link to "Live help" on
the organization's website) or its telephone hotline at
1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). Or e-mail questions to FAFSA
at FederalStudentAidCustomerService@ed.gov .
Given how much money is at stake, and the detailed financial
requirements of the application process, it often makes sense to
consult a financial planner.