If you are the parent of a college student – or a soon-to-be college student as I am; my elder daughter is a high school senior – then you need to get all your paperwork together now so you can fill out the FAFSA.
What’s the FAFSA? It is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and it is the only way that families can apply for federal and state financial aid, along with college financial aid. Most of the information you’ll need for the FAFSA will come from your tax returns. But if you haven’t done your 2012 returns yet, you can use your 2011 federal returns to get the details to complete the form.
Every parent should fill out the FAFSA, even if you think your income is too high to qualify for financial aid. While a higher income may disqualify you from obtaining need-based aid, if you want to apply for loans to help pay for college, you need that FAFSA done.
To get started, head over to the FAFSA website. Make sure you have the one that ends in .ed.gov; that is the official FAFSA site.
Once there, I recommend clicking on the “deadlines” tab on the home page. While the Federal FAFSA deadline isn’t until June 30, 2013, every state has a different FAFSA deadline and you’ll need to know yours.
If your child is attending a state school – or even if you want to apply for state-level financial aid – you need to make sure that your FAFSA is filed on time. Pennsylvania (where I live) has a May 1, 2013, FAFSA deadline. Michigan, where I used to live, has a March 1, 2013, FAFSA deadline.
In addition, each college may have a completely different FAFSA deadline from the state where you live, so you need to keep that in mind as well. For example, my daughter was accepted early-decision to Barnard College in New York City. Barnard’s FAFSA deadline is February 15, 2013.
Note: Some private colleges want you to fill out what’s called a CSS/PROFILE form for financial aid, too. That is done through the College Board. Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS/PROFILE asks for detailed financial information about your home, mortgage, retirement accounts and more. While colleges aren’t supposed to consider this “wealth” when calculating your child for financial aid, there is nothing stopping them from asking, and you would be wise to answer their questions and answer them truthfully – even if they do feel invasive and annoying.
You’ll also need to have your child’s Social Security number handy to get the FAFSA started. Make sure you enter it properly. “An incorrect [Social Security] number can have a ripple effect on whether information gets linked with all the colleges to which the student has applied,” warns Kevin Michaelsen, director of financial assistance at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. “It can be difficult to clear up this issue” if you enter the wrong number, and that means you could miss out on valuable financial aid.
You should budget 30 to 60 minutes for filling out the FAFSA, assuming that you have the most recent year’s federal income tax return handy. Note to self: Find that tax return before you start the FAFSA. Once you have it, you should be able to plug in all the numbers the FAFSA requires pretty quickly. It is understood that these are just estimates of incomes, based on past income tax returns. You are advised to file your 2012 federal tax return as soon as you can, and online, so that three weeks later you can go back to the FAFSA website and use the “income tax retrieval” option that will auto-fill your current information from the IRS.
You may be tempted to put off the FAFSA until your tax return is finished. But you really can’t because of those aforementioned state and college deadlines.
If you can’t get a solid hour to finish this online form, you can always start the FAFSA, save what you’ve done, and come back to it. Just don’t miss those deadlines.
And speaking of coming back, parents need to come back and do a new FAFSA for every year they will have a child in college – and for each child. Considering my daughters are two years apart, that means that every January from now until 2018 I will be filling out at least one FAFSA each year.
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