Don’t fear the FAFSA

It’s easy than ever to fill out the online federal student aid form

The FAFSA can be completed online by current and prospective college students — undergraduate and graduate — to determine eligibility for student financial aid. File at www.fafsa.gov.

It can be stressful enough thinking  about sending your kids off to college — honestly, will they actually remember to clean their rooms and call their mothers? But paying for it these days adds a new level of anxiety.

And the idea that federal aid is available to those who qualify doesn’t always ease the burden, because even the process of applying can seem daunting.

But it’s worth trying, especially since the process has been streamlined and modernized to make it an easier lift, said Valerie R. Castonguay, with the NHHEAF Network. NHHEAF includes New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation (NHHEAF), Granite State Management & Resources (GSM&R) and the New Hampshire Higher Education Loan Corporation (NHHELCO).

“We actually have many families who fill [out the FAFSA] and then call us and say, ‘was that all I had to do? I thought it was gonna be more painful because I’ve heard these horror stories,” Castonguay said.

What is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is an online form that determines eligibility for financial aid.

The FAFSA can be completed by current and prospective college students, both undergraduate and graduate, to determine eligibility for student financial aid. The FAFSA for the upcoming academic year will be released on Oct. 1 and can be accessed at www.fafsa.gov.

This isn’t the same thing as the College Scholarship Service profile or CSS. That application is maintained by the College Board and is an application for non-federal financial aid.

When you fill out the FAFSA you are sharing your family’s financial information to determine which federal aid programs your student qualifies for. These include grants, work-study, loans and scholarships.

Don’t leave money on the table

Some parents and students choose to not fill out the FAFSA thinking they make too much money to qualify for aid. While that is true for many families, Castonguay said it’s still worth filling out the form because it could lead to other financial assistance including grants and loans.

For example, Castonguay said, families who may not qualify for grants, may qualify for the Student Direct Loan (formerly known as a Stafford Loan) that the government offers. If a student doesn’t have a FAFSA on file, the student can’t borrow through that program.

“So essentially that’s leaving money on the table,” Castonguay said.

She added that even if they don’t take or use the loan right away, the FAFSA application is good for one year, which means they have the option of taking that loan anytime that year, if they need it.

Filling out the form allows students to apply to some private organizations for scholarships. Locally, that includes a scholarship offered by the NH Charitable Foundation.

“In order to apply for them the students have to have FAFSA on file,” Castonguay said. “For many students, even if they might not all qualify for free money through the government, they may qualify for a scholarship somewhere else.”

Filling it out

There are some changes this year aimed at making the application process a little easier, Castonguay said.

Castonguay said it’s now possible to connect to tax forms electronically while filling out the FAFSA.

“It’s the IRS data retrieval system and it will just go in as long as all the information is correct. It will retrieve the taxes and fill in a whole bunch of the FAFSA for families so that they don’t have to… struggle with, ‘what line do I find that on?’ and that sort of thing,” Castonguay said.

“That’s definitely made it a lot easier in that regard for many families, not all, but for many families.”

Also, it’s now possible to fill out the FAFSA with an app.

That said, for those using the app, there are some things you need to do first to make it work properly. According to the FAFSA website, here are some things you need to know when using the app:

  • Customers who are using an Apple device (mobile and/or desktop) may encounter errors on some FAFSA fields if the “smart punctuation” feature is enabled. This feature changes apostrophes and quotation marks to invalid characters that the FAFSA form cannot recognize.
  • To get the best experience, make sure your browser’s pop-up blocker allows pop-ups from fafsa.ed.gov before logging in to the FAFSA form.
  • The FAFSA form will be unavailable due to scheduled maintenance every Sunday from 3–11 a.m.

As you prepare to fill out the FAFSA, which Castonguay said usually only takes about 30 minutes, you should have a general sense of any assets you hold that are non-retirement assets. This includes things like checking and savings accounts, bonds, CDs, and money market accounts.

She also recommended having social security cards at the ready to reference.

“That’s because sometimes there’s a misspelling on the card… that could kick them out of the system or prolong the process,” she said.

The rest of the process is just a matter of filling out the financial information not included in the tax forms.

Still flummoxed?

Castonguay said in addition to presentations her organization gives on this topic, they also are available to answer questions by phone as you fill out the form or will even meet with you in person to fill it out with you.

“I would say the question we kind of get the most is a lot of parents are the ones filling the form out,” she said.

“I know it’s supposed to be the kid, but a lot of parents are filling the form out and a lot of parents mistakenly put their child as married and that changes the whole form… it’s silly little things like that that you just don’t even think about but that can obviously change the whole structure of the form.”

The other frequently asked question has to do with who gets listed on the forms if the parents have never been married or are divorced.

“That one kind of gets a little tricky,” she said. For a dependent student — the category most students are in — a parent needs to be listed.”

There are certain criteria, she said, that would allow a student to be listed as independent and thus wouldn’t have to list a parent on the form.

“They would have to be things like the student is over the age of 24, that the child would have to be married, they would have to have their own child or a child they support more than 50 percent of the time,” she said.

“In the case of a divorce, it’s whichever parent the student lives with 51 percent of the time or more, that would file the FAFSA. And if that parent is married, they do need to include their spouse’s information because it goes by household income.”

Once the application is done, Castonguay said, you get a confirmation as soon as you hit submit that tells you what the government feels your family can afford and what aid, if any, your student qualifies for based on the information provided.

It takes about three days for the information to be processed by the government, then any colleges listed on the FAFSA will have access to that information.

Castonguay said it is not uncommon for additional information to be requested.

“They could be asked to verify some information, like if siblings are attending college or if they weren’t able to connect to their taxes, they might have to do an extra step,” she said, “That’s very common that they would have to do that. And then it’s really just waiting for the college to come back and say, ‘this is what we can offer you in aid.’”

As for how long that process takes, Castonguay said it varies and it has a lot to do with when the student is accepted to the school.

“Sometimes they’re applying for their FAFSA before they’ve actually applied to the college,” she said, “so it really does vary. Sometimes it could be as quick as a couple of weeks if the student has already been accepted and sometimes it is a few months.”

For more information, the FAFSA website (www.fafsa.gov) has resources, information and videos about financing college as does the NHHEAF website: www.nhheaf.org.

Melanie Plenda is an award-winning freelance journalist and mom based in Keene. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic.com, The Daily Beast, American Baby, and Parents.com among other media outlets. She’s also the project manager for the Granite State News Collaborative.

Categories: Financial Aid, Getting started, Money and finance

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