College Financial Aid Advice

  • Tips from the Experts

    The person in the household who communicates with the accountant should file FAFSA. If another person tries to file it, there may be pain and suffering involved!

    client
    Robert Freidman, Yeshiva University

    Pay attention to the deadlines. Any deadline in the college process is important, because it means there’s a limitation.

    client
    Heather McDonnell,
    Sarah Lawrence College

    Submitting the aFAFSA online is the fastest way to get the information processed

    client
    Connie Brown, Texas Tech University

    If you’re estimating your taxes, but your income hasn’t changed much, it may be best to use last year’s tax return until you file the current year’s.

    client
    Scott Seibring,
    Illinois Wesleyan University

    Early decision applicants must meet earlier financial aid deadlines

    client
    Linda Parker, Union College

    To help speed up FAFSA processing, use the Data Retrieval System provided by the Department of Education and the IRS.

    client
    Bob Walker, Creighton University
  • Tips from Experts

    Affordable Colleges Online has collected tips on filling out the FAFSA form from financial aid officers across the country. These veterans have seen it all and share key advice on avoiding FAFSA pitfalls.

    Expert

    Robert Friedman

    University Director of Student Finance
    Yeshiva University
    New York, NY

    • The person in the household who communicates with the accountant should file FAFSA. If another person tries to file it, there may be pain and suffering involved!
    • Don’t wait — estimate. Estimate your income and file the FAFSA, instead of waiting until you file your tax return. If you wait, you risk missing the school’s deadline. In addition, institutional aid is generally awarded on a first-come first-served basis.
    • If you’re filing online, use the “help” button. A detailed explanation will pop up and should answer your questions.
    • If the answer to a question is $0, put $0. Don’t stress if you have nothing to report to a specific question. Put $0 and move on.
    • Don’t include the value of the primary residence in real estate value.
    • Don’t include the value of retirement accounts.
    • If you’re a parent, get the student involved! This is a learning process for them too, and for many is the first step on a journey of managing their own personal finances.

    Expert

    Scott Seibring

    Director of Financial Aid
    Illinois Wesleyan University
    Bloomington, IL

    • Have as much documentation on hand as possible before you begin filling out the FAFSA.
    • Read the instructions carefully. Most mistakes can be avoided by reading and following the instructions.
    • If you’re estimating your taxes, but your income hasn’t changed much, it may be best to use last year’s tax return until you file the current year’s. People who estimate frequently use the amount of taxes withheld. This can result in an underestimated amount if you pay additional taxes at the time of filing, or an overestimated amount if you get a refund.
    • Do not use the tax withholding amount or the self-employment tax amount when estimating. Neither of those is cited in the FAFSA instructions as an amount to use for taxes paid.
    • It is important to note carefully what is excluded as what is included in the asset question. Applicants frequently list home equity and retirement funds, such as 401Ks and IRAs, even though the FAFSA instructions say to exclude place of primary residence and any qualified retirement funds.
    • Payments to tax deferred pensions are frequently not answered correctly. This amount is on the W-2, but people frequently omit the answer on the FAFSA, because it is not on the tax return.

    Expert

    Connie Brown

    Associate Director Student Financial Aid and Scholarships
    Texas Tech University
    Lubbock, TX

    • Rest assured that, while the FAFSA application takes some time, it is not difficult to complete.
    • Since financial aid in most institutions is limited, getting the FAFSA submitted as early as possible is important. Find out what the priority application date is for your college, and don’t miss the deadline.
    • Submitting the FAFSA online is the fastest way to get the information processed.
    • Be sure you are submitting the correct FAFSA. 12-13 and 13-14 are both currently available at www.fafsa.ed.gov. A student beginning his/her college study in the fall of 2013 will submit the 2013-2014 FAFSA.
    • Unless a student is 24 years old or meets some other specific criteria, the student is likely a dependent and will need to supply parental information on the FAFSA.
    • Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to access the IRS tax return information needed to complete the FAFSA. If you are eligible to use the tool it is the easiest way to provide your tax data; it’s the best way of ensuring that your FAFSA has accurate tax information, and you won’t have to provide copies of the tax return transcript to your college.
    • Contact your school’s financial aid office after your FAFSA is processed to ensure they’ve received it and to ask whether they need any additional documents to complete your financial aid file.

    Expert

    Linda Parker

    Financial Aid Director
    Union College
    Schenectady, NY

    • Make sure you understand and meet the requirements, which vary between schools.
    • Early decision applicants must meet earlier financial aid deadlines.
    • If you estimate your tax information, make the estimate as accurate as possible so that schools can make awards that don’t require dramatic changes upon verification of the final tax data.
    • Every incoming freshman has access to $5,500 in unsubsidized Stafford loans, an amount that increases every school year. Whether families need students to shoulder some college costs or simply want children to make a personal investment in their educations, access to loans can be helpful. Remember, students don’t have to accept loans. But the money is there if needed.
    • Don’t answer “No” to the question: Are you planning to apply for need-based financial aid? Checking “No” directs students’ applications away from schools’ financial aid offices, taking them out of the running for awards. Families should check “Yes” on this question to ensure the student’s application reaches a school’s admissions and financial aid offices.
    • If you have special challenges that aren’t reflected on the applications – say a parental job loss or major medical expenses write a letter to the school’s financial aid office. Such factors can be considered when awarding aid.
    • Do everything online. Union has access to FAFSA information within 10 days of a student’s submission. It’s the most efficient way to conduct all financial aid business.
    • All colleges and universities are required to offer a net price calculator online, which enables you to estimate the real price of attendance. These estimates can contextualize the perceived “sticker shock” of higher-priced schools, which might actually offer more aid. Families can use the calculators years before students apply, which may help influence choices.
    • Proofread all forms. Some parents who fill out applications for students accidentally enter their own names, causing major confusion.
    • Stay away from “services” that charge to fill out FAFSA forms (some up to $500). There is so much free help available, and families can also call schools’ financial aid offices, the College Board, and federal processors with questions.
    • Above all, stay calm and follow directions. FAFSA usually only takes about an hour to complete. Updates can be made at anytime.

    Expert

    Bob Walker

    Financial Aid Director
    Creighton University
    Omaha, NE

    • Be sure to use the student’s full legal name and Social Security number. The FAFSA is compared against SSA records and the two must match.
    • Dependent FAFSA filers should not include parents in the number of people in college, even if one or both is attending a post-secondary school.
    • If at all possible, use the Data Retrieval System provided by the Department of Education and IRS, as this will speed up FAFSA processing once the information is received by the school(s).
    • Respond promptly to all requests for additional information from schools in order to not delay your financial aid award.
    • Whenever questions come up, contact your school for help, guidance and assistance. That’s what they’re there for.

    Expert

    Heather McDonnell

    Associate Dean of Financial Aid
    Sarah Lawrence College
    Bronxville, NY

    • Take your time filling out the form. Speed causes mistakes.
    • When the form asks for your Social Security number, it’s asking for the student’s number. Many parents put down their social security numbers, which is a fatal mistake and very difficult to undo.
    • Pay attention to the deadlines. Any deadline in the college process is important, because it means there’s a limitation.
    • When parents are divorced, figuring out whose information to include can be tricky. For FAFSA purposes, the parent with whom the student resides is considered the custodial parent. If this custodial parent is remarried, the step-parent information must also be included in the FAFSA. Schools don’t assume step-parents will contribute to the student’s education, but they do feel step-parents may be able to take over more of the household expenses, relieving the custodial parent from some of that responsibility.
    • Don’t call schools with questions before the FAFSA data has arrived. The most effective conversations occur when the financial aid officer has your information on hand.
    • Everyone should fill out the FAFSA. Only your school can evaluate your financial aid situation, and the only way for the schools to do so is to review your FAFSA.
    • If you make an egregious mistake, the college will likely see it and help you correct the information. They, too, have a vested interest in ensuring the information is correct.