The FAFSA survival guide for your whole family

If your family needs help paying for college,

If your family needs help paying for college, you have to file the FAFSA -- the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. (Credit: iStock)

Let’s be honest: Completing the FAFSA -- that’s short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- is about as much fun as showing up to your algebra class and hearing the words “pop quiz.”

But if your family needs help paying for college, you have to file the FAFSA. Schools use the FAFSA results to award federal, state and even some private loans, grants and scholarships.

The FAFSA asks detailed questions about your family’s income, savings, assets and expenses. Then, based on a formula known only to a few math geeks, it churns out a Student Aid Report (SAR) that includes your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), what the government thinks your family should be able to pay for your education.

Completing the FAFSA is a job for your mom or dad, but you should be aware of how it all works. Share these pointers with your ‘rents, and you’ll all be less stressed out come FAFSA time.

Get organized now. The application for the 2011-2012 academic year will be available at fafsa.ed.gov on January 1. Your family should prepare now to avoid scrambling when the New Year rolls around. Tip: You can update your form several times before you hit the final “submit” key.

First, you should know that when assets are in a student’s name -- instead of her parents’ names -- the EFC tends to be higher; the government assumes that students don’t have the same kinds of financial obligations that their parents have, so more of the child’s money should go toward paying college bills. Move your assets into your parents’ names or into a 529 college savings plan now.

Second, the EFC is based in large part on savings (but not on retirement accounts). If your parents have debt, they should consider paying it down now to shrink their savings accounts and perhaps reduce your family’s EFC.

Don’t wait. Since many colleges and grant programs award aid on a first-come, first-served basis, you want to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible. Your parents will need the info from their W-2s and bank statements (so will you, if you earn an income), but it’s okay to estimate with last year’s tax forms and update when tax documents arrive.

Hunt and gather. To save yourselves time, get all the info you’ll need to fill out the form. This includes your social security and driver’s license numbers, end-of-year pay stubs for you and your parents; records or estimates of other household income; and current bank, investment and mortgage statements. You’ll also need the appropriate college codes: The SAR is sent automatically to as many as 10 schools of your choice. You can find these codes by searching at fafsa.ed.gov or by asking the schools.

Just do it. Once you have all the info, it won’t take long -- maybe an hour -- to complete the FAFSA online. The electronic application alerts you if you’ve left something blank and lets you review your form before sending, making it easy to catch mistakes. It also allows you to track your app and change information if necessary. Best of all, your FAFSA will be processed more quickly if you file online than if you do it by mail.

Before you hit the “submit” key, be sure all of the information is accurate. About 30 percent of all applications are selected for verification by the government—and colleges also may want to see your records.

Don’t panic. The FAFSA bases your EFC on your family’s income for

2010. If your family experiences a radical change in income early in 2011—caused by a lost job, for example—don’t freak out. Wait to receive your financial aid packages from colleges, and then call the financial aid offices and explain what happened. Many colleges will be willing and able to adjust your award.

Finally, the best news of all: Once you’ve finished your first FAFSA, the worst is over. You’ll need to file every year you want financial aid, but from now on you can use the “Renewal FAFSA” form -- which is much less stressful for everyone.

 

 

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