It’s a multipage government form that asks for tax information and can have a major impact on your future.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a serious matter, but prospective college students and their parents shouldn’t be intimidated or overwhelmed, two experts said, or they could leave thousands of dollars on the table.
The application, known as FAFSA, is the only way to claim a piece of the $150 billion pot of federal grants, loans and work-study funds to help pay for college or any other higher education.
Some state financial aid programs and private scholarship funds also require students to complete the FAFSA. In Maine, the State of Maine Grant Program, Educators for Maine Program and Maine Health Professions Loan Program are among those requiring the FAFSA.
Even so, in recent years nearly half of Maine high school seniors have not completed the FAFSA, according to data from the Finance Authority of Maine.
Mila Tappan, college access counselor at the Finance Authority of Maine, and Kate Leveille, college and career access director at Maine Education Services, help people figure out how to pay for college. They offered this advice for navigating the FAFSA process and maximizing the amount of financial aid a student can receive.
Many students won’t learn where they’ve been admitted until April and won’t make a commitment until May 1 — or even later, for students attending schools with rolling admissions. But that’s no reason not to file the FAFSA now.
Many colleges and universities have deadlines for applying for financial aid. At the University of Southern Maine, for example, it’s Feb. 15. The University of Maine at Augusta has a priority deadline of March 1, meaning anyone who submits by then is guaranteed to receive consideration for aid.
“We know if students get their FAFSAs done early, they’re going to meet deadlines,” Tappan said. “Once they get beyond January, those deadlines start occurring. … Don’t take a chance on missing out on financial aid.”
Even if a school accepts a later application, it’s less likely to offer assistance.
“Schools have only so much money to give out, and you want to make sure you’re in that queue as soon as possible,” Leveille said.
(First) F is for free
Be on guard when searching online about the FAFSA. Some companies have set up websites with official-looking addresses to sell FAFSA preparation and filing services. One website this week was advertising its services for an $88 fee.
Filers should make sure they use the Department of Education’s official site, fafsa.ed.gov.
“Don’t ever pay to submit your FAFSA,” Leveille said. “The first F in FAFSA is free.”
Assistance in filling out the form is also available for free, via college financial aid offices, high school counselors and organizations like the Finance Authority of Maine and Maine Education Services.
In addition to the workshop series starting this weekend, the Finance Authority of Maine offers guidance online at www.famemaine.com/fafsa and by phone during regular business hours at 1-800-228-3734.
Everyone should do it
Adults. Continuing students. High-income families. Anyone who’s even considering higher education in 2014-15.
Most FAFSA outreach targets college-bound high school seniors, but that’s only a segment of the group that can benefit from federal financial aid.
There are no age restrictions on federal financial aid; financial need is the only consideration.
Aid doesn’t carry over from year to year, so students should resubmit the FAFSA for each year of school. Tappan said the renewal is usually easier because it carries forward much of the information from the previous year.
Tappan said she often hears people say they don’t want to bother filing the FAFSA because they think they earn too much to be eligible for anything.
“I say that everybody should file because you don’t know what you’re eligible for until you file,” she said. “It’s not like there’s a cutoff. It might only be a loan, but everybody’s eligible for something.”
Federal student loans are better than private loans because borrowers can receive flexible repayment terms in some circumstances, Tappan said. Their interest rates are fixed and may be lower than rates on private loans.
Leveille and Tappan said another common mistake is that students skip filing the FAFSA if they think they might not go to college or another post-secondary school. If they change their minds later and decide to enroll, they might miss their chance to receive aid.
Because the FAFSA is free and doesn’t commit a person to anything, even undecided students should complete it.
“You can list any schools on it that you even think you might attend,” Tappan said. “If you do attend, they have your information and can decide what you’re eligible for. If you don’t go, nothing bad happens. They just don’t do anything with the data.”
What you’ll need
The most important pieces of information to have, Tappan said, are the student’s Social Security Number and full legal name as it appears on the Social Security card.
FAFSA filers also need at least an estimate of 2013 household income. That should include parent income even if the parents aren’t contributing to education costs for most students born in 1991 or later.
Because so few people have their taxes done so early in the year, Leveille said, the application is designed to accept estimates early on.
Applicants can base those estimates on the previous year’s tax return if little has changed, a W-2 or a final pay stub. If none of those are available, Tappan said a guess is fine. Starting in February, filers can update their forms manually or by using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool online to transfer information to the FAFSA two weeks after a tax return is filed.
The U.S. Department of Education says that it takes an average of 23 minutes to fill out the FAFSA.
“Years ago it was a more difficult process to get through. The good news is now, the FAFSA has become so easy,” Tappan said. “But people don’t always realize that. Their experience years ago isn’t what it’s like today.”
Go from A to Z
Most of this advice is long-standing.
Leveille drew attention, however, to a tip that emerged after media outlets reported last year that some colleges and universities may use one piece of the FAFSA against applicants.
Students can list up to 10 schools with which they want their FASFA information shared by the U.S. Department of Education. Every school receives all the information and can see where each student listed their institution relative to others.
According to the National Association of College Admission Counseling, some institutions, trying to increase the chance that an admitted applicant will attend, are more likely to admit students who put the school high on their FAFSA lists, or they may offer those students financial aid first.
To avoid any such consequences, students should list schools alphabetically, not by preference, Leveille said.
Tappan said she’s never encountered any evidence that schools in Maine care about their position on a FAFSA list. Her only tip regarding order is that a student considering more than 10 institutions list the ones with earliest deadlines first because they’ll be allowed to add more later.