If you are the parent of a college student or soon-to-be college student, 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 since you probably haven’t done your 2021 return yet, you can use your 2020 federal return 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” section on the home page. While the federal FAFSA deadline for 2021-22 isn’t until 11:59 p.m. Central time on June 30, 2022, 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) had a FAFSA deadline of May 1 or Aug. 1, 2021, depending on the type of school. Michigan, where I used to live, had a May 1, 2021, 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. Some could be as early as mid-February.
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 assessing 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 correctly in the proper place. According to the handbook that guides Federal Student Aid partners, the SSN on the application is checked against the records of the Social Security Administration. If they don’t match, the application would be rejected.
Also, the name on the application should match the one on the student’s Social Security card. Clearing up either error means dealing with the Social Security Administration and possibly submitting a new FAFSA. And losing a lot of time.
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 2021 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, which 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.
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