Please note: This blog was updated in November 2020. The updated blog can be found here.
Over the next few months millions of parents or their children are expected to complete and file financial aid applications.
Are you worried about the process?
There’s a lot at stake when it comes to educating your children and anyone can get on edge through the process, so…
Here are 11 basic tips to keep in mind when filing for financial aid:
1. COMPLETE THE FAFSA
First and foremost, the free Application for Federal Financial Aid (“FAFSA”) should be completed.
Even if you do not think you will qualify for federal grants, most states and many colleges, use the form to award institutional grants and scholarships. It is also required to take out any federal student loans, which are cheaper and safer than private market loans. In addition, most schools use the FAFSA to help determine a student’s eligibility for their own institutional aid.
2. COMPLETE THE CSS PROFILE AND/OR IDOC
More than 200 mostly private schools also require you to complete the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE and/or IDOC.
The schools that require the CSS Profile use it to gather additional information to determine who may receive their own in-house financial aid. Since they do not believe the FAFSA provides sufficient information about a family’s finances, they use the Profile to ask more questions and gather more information.
The schools using the Profile still rely on the FAFSA to establish who qualifies for federal and state aid.
3. READY YOUR TAX-RETURNS
Historically, the process for filing financial aid forms has been very rushed. However, last year the system changed. It now requires that parents use two-year-old tax returns. This allows you to import most of your tax information into your FAFSA application directly via a link to the Internal Revenue Service.
4. START EARLY
Since previously filed tax returns can be used, parents can file FAFSA forms as soon as October 1, which is three months earlier than in the past. It also means that the forms can be filed without relying on estimated information.
The best practice is to file for financial aid on October 1 or as soon as possible after that date. Filing early is especially valuable if you are applying for your first year of college and are part of the early decision pool at your school of choice. It can also be important if you live in states such as Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington as these states along with four others award aid on a first-come, first-served basis. You can find your state’s deadline on this list, which is maintained by the U.S. Department of Education. It is important to note that some states, such as California and Connecticut, may impose early deadlines. Some schools also only dispense funds until they run out.
5. HANDLING CHANGES TO INCOME
Using two-year old tax returns can present problems for parents who have seen their income decline since that tax return was filed. For example, a parent with a high-paying job may have been laid off, resulting in his or her income being meaningfully lower.
Fortunately, there may be an option for these parents. They can ask colleges for a professional judgment. College financial aid administrators can recalculate a student’s aid amount based on information that is not reflected in an aid application. While not all schools will take this step, it can be worth the effort.
6. DOCUMENTS NEEDED
Here is the basic information you need to file the FAFSA:
· You will have to start by creating a FSA ID.
· You must go to the FAFSA website to fill out the form. You will also need the following:
o Social security numbers for both parents and the student
o Driver’s license numbers for the parents and students are optional
o Federal income tax return from two years ago (2016 for the current FAFSA) (note that you can import much of the information from your tax returns through a link to the IRS)
o W-2 form(s)
o Current bank and investment account statements
7. FILING AS AN INDEPENDENT STUDENT
Parents may be wondering if their child can file for financial aid as an independent student. This could be very helpful, as students typically have little in the way of assets or income, which would make it much easier to qualify for financial aid.
However, it is extremely hard for students to be eligible to file for aid independently even if they are living on their own and paying their own bills.
The main criteria students must possess to file for aid independently are as follows:
· The student must be at least 24 years of age in the year of the filing.
· The student must be married.
· The student must be working on an advanced degree.
· The student must be a veteran or in the military.
· The student must have a legal guardian.
8. PROTOCOL FOR DIVORCED FAMILIES
In the event of divorce or separation, only the custodial parent needs to file the FAFSA. The FAFSA definition of custodial parent is unusual. It is the parent with whom the child has lived for the majority of the 12-month period ending on the day the FAFSA is filed. For example, assume the FAFSA is submitted on December 1, 2017. The parent who completes the FAFSA would be the one who took care of the child for more than six months dating back to December 1, 2016.
If there is a chance of receiving financial aid, it makes sense for the parent with the least assets and the lowest income to be the custodial parent. Whether that parent is the one who pays child support or who claims the child as a dependent on tax returns is meaningless for purposes of determining the custodial parent. The FAFSA rules on divorce also apply to separated parents.
However, the CSS PROFILE rules on divorce and separation are different. Most schools that use the PROFILE will also require that the noncustodial parent provide financial information. If this information is required, parents must complete a document called the Noncustodial PROFILE.
9. HELPFUL RESOURCES FOR FAFSA AND CSS PROFILE
There are resources available for parents that need assistance with filing the FAFSA and the PROFILE. FAFSA’s toll-free number is (800) 433-3243. The toll-free number for the PROFILE is (844) 202-0524.
Money magazine also provides guidance on answering some of the tougher questions in the FAFSA as well as some broader guidelines. The Kahn Academy offers step-by-step guides for both the FAFSA and the CSS PROFILE as well.
10. APPLY FOR SCHOLARSHIPS
There are also many sources of scholarships and aid beyond the FAFSA. For example, here is a large list of scholarship opportunities and a guide to Federal Student Aid from an office of the U.S. Department of Education. You can also download a free FAFSA guide here.
11. DON’T FEEL YOU HAVE TO SETTLE FOR THE INITIAL OFFER
If your child receives a merit or financial aid reward, she shouldn’t necessarily accept it. While colleges do not tell families this, they are often willing to discuss granting a higher award. Except at the most elite schools, college is a buyer’s market, and most institutions worry each year about filling their freshmen slots.
When appealing an award, parents need to be specific about what additional money they need and why, and include any documentation. You can also have your child make the request, as some schools will pay more heed to a student’s request than one made by a parent.
In future posts, we plan to discuss rules related to 529 Plans (also called college savings plans) as well as the treatment of assets held in custodial accounts for financial aid purposes. If you would like to be added to our mailing list so that you receive these blogs as soon as they are published, please sign up on our website. Preparing for the costs of sending your children (as well as grandchildren, nieces and nephews) can be part of your financial plan. If you would like to discuss these issues with us, please complete our contact form, and we will be in touch.
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Phil Weiss founded Apprise Wealth Management. He started his financial services career in 1987 working as a tax professional for Deloitte & Touche. For the past 25+ years, he has worked extensively in the areas of financial planning and investment management. Phil is both a CFA charterholder and a CPA.
Located just north of Baltimore, Apprise works with clients face-to-face locally and can also work virtually regardless of location.