Here’s What You Need to Do to Apply for College Financial Aid
The FAFSA application for the 2017/18 school year just became available on October 1st, and, since some colleges award funding, at least partially, on a first-come/first-served basis, many parents of high school seniors are anxious to get those financial aid applications submitted. While completing your FAFSA sooner rather than later is a good idea for most families, take a deep breath, parents, and make sure you complete these 10 steps before applying for financial aid:
- Learn What Forms You Need to Fill Out
While most colleges just require the FAFSA to apply for financial aid, about 300 (almost entirely private) colleges require an additional form called the CSS/Financial Aid Profile. A few schools might have their own institutional aid application or request copies of financial documents as well, so make sure you confirm the requirements of each college your child is applying to on their website.
- Determine Whose Information Is Required
If the student’s biological or adoptive parents are married and/or living together, the FAFSA is pretty straightforward. Both parents’ financial information is required. If, however, the student’s parents are divorced, separated, or were never married, only the custodial parent’s information is required. If the custodial parent is (re)married, the stepparent in that custodial household must also provide info. In addition, colleges that require the CSS Profile often require noncustodial household information.
- Get FSA IDs.
Both the student and one parent are required to sign the FAFSA with an FSA ID. Request one at www.fsaid.ed.gov.
- Understand What Income is Reported
Beginning this year, the FAFSA will ask about the family’s income from what is known as the “prior, prior year.” High school seniors starting college in 2017, you’re reporting 2015 income.
- Understand What Assets are Reported
The FAFSA asks you to report the value of three types of assets you may possess: your cash/checking/savings accounts, your investments, and businesses you own. The fine print reveals that you should not report the value of your primary residence, your retirement accounts, or any small, family-owned businesses. These assets are excluded from the financial aid calculations at colleges that just require the FAFSA, though may be considered at colleges that use the CSS Profile.
- Gather Financial Statements
While most FAFSA filers will be able to import their income information from the IRS database using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, assets are self-reported. Gather your most recent account statements or pull up your financial institutions’ websites and note your current balances. W-2’s may also be helpful in documenting untaxed income.
- Spend Down Assets
You are asked to report the value of your assets as of the day you submit your financial aid application. While I wouldn’t recommend spending money for the sake of spending it—you’ll need all the money you can get your hands on to help pay for college—if you have big expenses coming up (a new car, a new roof for the house, a credit card that needs to be paid off…), you may want to pay those bills before submitting your aid application in order to legitimately reduce the amount of assets reported.
- Consider Moving Custodial Accounts to Custodial 529s
Assets held by the student are generally treated much more harshly by the financial aid formula than assets held by the parents (often a 20% assessment rate for student assets, as opposed to, at worst, 6% for parents). While it is not legal for a parent to simply move money from a student’s account into a parent’s account (yup, that’s called stealing), the federal financial aid regulations ask you to report 529s owned by parents or students as parent assets on the FAFSA, so, if you have college savings held in a custodial account owned by your child, you may want to consider moving it into a custodial 529 in order to receive gentler financial aid treatment. Just make sure you understand the limitations of a 529 and the income repercussions of liquidation.
- Document Special Circumstances
If you have financial circumstances not reflected on the FAFSA, like medical expenses, your own student loans, or a job loss since 2015, document those circumstances and ask the financial aid offices to consider when reviewing your child’s application.
- Run Net Price Calculators
Before ever touching a financial aid application, you can get an estimate of what funding you may receive from any given college by running that college’s Net Price Calculator. While NPCs are of varying quality, their availability on every college’s website nowadays means that financial aid offers (or lack thereof) should no longer come as a shock to families. If you have not completed Net Price Calculators for the colleges on your child’s list, do so now. If you find that few or none of the colleges will be affordable to you, it may be time to head back to the drawing board and consider revising that college list to include some colleges that, with financial aid and scholarships, will be within your price range.
With the extreme high cost of college, it is no wonder that families are anxious to get the financial aid ball rolling. While I do recommend that families file their FAFSAs in a timely manner, be sure that you complete the above ten steps before submitting that aid application in order to make sure the application process goes as smoothly as possible and maximize the likelihood that the financial aid offers you receive will be ones you will be happy to accept.