Applying for college financial aid doesn’t have to be like having a root canal
Filling out the form for federal college aid used to be regarded as the equivalent of a root canal. Thanks to some much-needed simplification, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a bit less grueling for online applicants this year.
The FAFSA remains an essential step toward getting help paying for college. It is commonly used by colleges and states to set grant and loan amounts. Submit it as early in the year as possible.
■ What has changed?
The Department of Education is in the early stages of its effort to simplify. It has shortened the online application for the 2010-11 school year, using improved “skip logic’’ to allow students or parents to bypass questions that don’t apply.
Experienced FAFSA filers say the site has a shorter worksheet, improved navigation, a handy help section, and an instant estimate of eligibility for loans.
■ How long does it take to complete?
The site (www.fafsa.ed.gov) estimates first-time users can finish in less than an hour. That assumes you have gathered key information in advance: end-of-year pay stubs if you haven’t done your tax returns yet, Social Security numbers, driver’s license number, investment records, bank statements.
Those who have already filled out the CSS/Financial Aid Profile, a separate form used by many private colleges, should find this process relatively fast.
Mark Kantrowitz, who runs FinAid.org, says most people say the FAFSA takes two or three hours.
■ Our income is probably too high. Why should I apply?
Applying is almost essential if you plan to borrow any money for college. Filing the FAFSA is a prerequisite for getting a federal Stafford loan, for which all students are eligible. And if you lose your job and suddenly need aid, you’ve done the paperwork.
Kantrowitz says most people who think they won’t qualify are mistaken. Even if you don’t get aid this year, having a second child in college in a year or two could alter the picture dramatically.
■ What are the consequences of being off on your estimates?
Probably none as long as you’re within a few thousand dollars, assuming you follow up with the correct numbers. Colleges will want to see your final tax returns before disbursing aid anyway.
■ Are there any last-minute things to bolster my chances for receiving aid?
It’s too late for most strategies to help with next year’s aid. But if you have money saved in a student’s name that is not in a 529 college savings plan, Kantrowitz suggests liquidating that account and moving the funds to an account in the parent’s name.
When assets are in the child’s name, the FAFSA formula will spit out a higher number for the amount the family is expected to contribute. If you can switch thousands of dollars to a parent’s account, that could make you eligible for significantly more aid.
Dave Carpenter is an Associated Press personal finance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.