The College Game

By Dr. Mark L. Fisher | drmarkfisher@bellsouth.net

Come Jan. 1, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid becomes available. For high school seniors in Georgia, the FAFSA is important for the HOPE Scholarship and usually is a requirement for any financial aid from colleges.

Don’t panic: You don’t have to complete the FAFSA in a week. Refer to a college’s website for its due date, but if you do not complete the FAFSA, your dream of need-based financial help might disappear.

Mark L. Fisher

Mark L. Fisher

The most common mistakes in completing the FAFSA (www.fafsa.ed.gov):

  • Thinking you will not qualify for any financial aid (scholarships, grants, loans, work study). Some fairly wealthy families qualify for aid. Just because you may not qualify for federal aid doesn’t mean that the college will not offer you some of its own aid.

Some colleges also require the CSS/Financial Aid Profile. A list of those colleges is on the College Board website (www.collegeboard.com). The profile is not free, but if the college requires it, you can find it on the College Board site and the college’s website.

Completing these financial aid documents is not as difficult as it may appear, but not completing them means no need-based money will come your way.

  • Using the wrong tax year. For this year’s seniors, the base year is 2015. If a family completes its tax returns early, the FAFSA will be easier to fill out. However, you can estimate figures on the FAFSA and have an opportunity later to make adjustments if your tax figures vary from your estimates.

Next year’s FAFSA will be completely different for this year’s juniors; more on that in a future article.

  • Missing deadlines. The colleges are serious about deadlines because they do not have a lot of time to review your FAFSA results. Thus, in many instances, the early bird gets the worm.
  • Being too specific. The FAFSA wants only whole dollar amounts, no cents. Believe it or not, thousands of applicants temporarily lost eligibility because they entered cents. Review what you have entered because an error can cost you heavily in the end.

Start gathering information that you will need to complete the FAFSA so you are prepared Jan. 1. A future article will focus on additional common errors that spoil FAFSA applications. Here is some of the information you will need:

  • Social Security numbers.
  • Driver’s license (if any).
  • W-2 forms for 2015 and other records of money earned.
  • Your federal income tax return if available.
  • Current bank statements.
  • Current business and investment mortgage information, business records, and stock, bond and other investment records.

Need help? Check the Help section of the FAFSA website or call the Federal Student Aid Information Center.

A handy telephone number is 800-433-3243, the U.S. Department of Education. Free help is available. Also, the FAFSA has a help section where you can find information for each question.

The FAFSA site at www.fafsa.ed.gov is well designed.

Be careful, though, because some outfits use websites that look like the federal website with a little change in the address. That could cost you money. FAFSA is free. The best way, by far, is to complete the FAFSA online.

Keep a record of everything you submit. You might be subject to a verification process and have to submit tax documents. The year 2015 becomes your base year for these FAFSA calculations.

What is the FAFSA4caster? This is an aid in preparing you for the actual FAFSA. You will obtain a preliminary estimated expected family contribution (EFC), which will let you know how much the methodology used thinks you can afford. You may not agree, but that figure is what the colleges will use in their financial aid decisions.

Your electronic passport to federal student aid online is the FSA ID. It is very important. It will be used to confirm your identity when accessing your financial aid information and serves as your electronic signature on federal student aid documents.

When you go to the FAFSA website, you should see the button for the FSA ID and how to create it. If you had to file the FAFSA in the past, you had a PIN. No more: It has gone away. Now there is only the FSA ID.

Both the student and a parent need a FSA ID. The parent can’t use the student’s ID because both have to sign their signatures separately.

 

Mark L. Fisher is a college and career consultant at Fisher Educational Consultants (www.fishereducationalconsultants.com).