By Diana Simeon
If you’ve got a high-school senior headed off to college next year, then you’ll need to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Financial Aid) in order to make sure your family is eligible for financial aid. Here’s the bottom line: filling out the FAFSA is not only time-consuming, it can also be confusing. So we asked David Levy, an editor with Edvisors and an expert on the FAFSA, for his top tips.
1. File the FAFSA early. Families can start filing the 2017-2018 FAFSA on October 1. According to Edvisors’ research, filing early can mean more financial aid.
“There are real advantages to filing early,” says Levy. That’s because Edvisor’s own research shows that students who file early get twice as much grant money — which is free money — as those who file later in the process. For example, some states have early deadlines for their grant programs and hand out funds on a first-come, first-served basis. If you file your FAFSA after the money is gone, you’re out of luck, even if you are eligible for those funds.
Good news. Starting with the 2017-2018 FAFSA, filers will be able to use 2015 tax data. In year’s past, the FAFSA required filers to provide prior year tax data, which meant that families often had to rush to complete their taxes (or at least come up with an estimate) in order to be able to file the FAFSA early. Starting this year, however, the FAFSA will ask for prior prior year tax data (for both prospective and returning students). For the 2017-2018 FAFSA, 2015 is the prior prior year (and those, of course, are already done).
2. Make sure you file the correct FAFSA. You will file the FAFSA every year your student is in college — in order to maintain your family’s eligibility for financial aid — so when you log in to the system at fafsa.ed.gov, you need to pick the correct FAFSA. Families with high-school seniors should select the 2017-2018 FAFSA, not the 2016-2017 version.
3. Get your materials in order before starting the FAFSA. It can be helpful to gather the documents you’ll need before starting the FAFSA. That includes social security numbers, your 2015 taxes, plus your most current statements for assets like checking, savings and investment accounts, 529 savings accounts, and real estate holdings. Note that FAFSA does not take into account the value of your home (for a primary residence) or your retirement assets, so do not include those values by mistake as they will impact your family’s eligibility. Finally, don’t forget your list of the schools to which the FAFSA information should be sent.
4. Get your Federal Student Aid (FSA) IDs before you start. You will be prompted to create an FSA ID — both parents and students — during the FAFSA process, but it can expedite things to get your FSA ID before you start the FAFSA (it can take up to three days to get one). Having an FSA ID is also the only way to access several key U.S. Department of Education websites, including studentloans.gov, which is the gateway for loan programs provided by U.S. Department of Education (including Parent Plus loans). Visit fsaid.ed.gov to sign up.
5. Fill out the FAFSA, even if you think you won’t be eligible for financial aid. Higher-income families often eschew filing the FAFSA believing that it’s unnecessary since they don’t qualify for financial aid. That’s a mistake, says Levy. For starters, the eligibility guidelines change annually, so while you may not qualify one year, you may qualify the next. Also, when a sibling starts college, it’s the equivalent — for the FAFSA — of cutting your income in half, so while you may not qualify for financial aid when one student is in college, you may qualify when you have two.
Diana Simeon is managing editor of Your Teen Magazine.