It’s getting easier to fill out the dreaded Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the key form for obtaining college funding.
Since overhauling the online version of FAFSA several years ago, the U.S. Department of Education has continued to make tweaks. The most recent changes for 2015 clarified some definitions, color-coded some sections to make sure they’re not overlooked by students and parents, and provided more detailed instructions to certain questions. Changes in the online login procedure are scheduled to kick in this spring.
Still, with about 130 questions to answer and dozens of pages of supporting instructions, the FAFSA can be daunting, which is a reason many families skip the process and pass up assistance.
Here are tips from the College Board, Sallie Mae, Edvisors and other financial aid experts that will make the 10 pages of FAFSA questions simpler to fill out.
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▪ Don’t be swayed by any online services that offer FAFSA assistance for a fee. There are plenty of these commercial enterprises out there. Some websites will even ask for credit card information, so beware of any attempts to gain your personal information.
The real deal from the Education Department is free, and it can be found at fafsa.ed.gov. While it’s faster and easier to fill out the document online, families can still mail in the application, though it may take two to four weeks for processing.
▪ Eliminate procrastination by being organized. Among the documents that students and parents will need when filing are Social Security numbers, driver’s license, federal income tax returns for 2014, if available, W-2s and other records of money earned such as current bank and brokerage account statements.
If you’re still working on the tax return, you can estimate your income and other tax return information, then update the application after filing your taxes by using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.
▪ On this year’s FAFSA, student-related items are shaded in dark blue, while questions for parents to complete are in purple.
▪ With many students coming from nontraditional family situations, who is considered a parent on the FAFSA can be complicated. Last year, federal officials tried to address the situation with more instructions. This year, they added more details for further clarity.
For example, if the parents are divorced or separated and do not live together, only the custodial parent is responsible for completing the FAFSA. That’s the parent whom the student lived with the most over the past 12 months. The instructions walk through multiple other examples.
▪ You can add up to 10 schools that you want to review your financial aid information. If you want to add a school later or delete a school, go back into the FAFSA site and update your information. If you don’t, the school will not receive your financial aid information and you may not receive any funds.
▪ In a security-related technical revision set for April, the Education Department will switch from the current four-digit federal student aid PIN that allows students to sign their forms online and check the status of their application to a username and password ID.
▪ Proof-read. Transposing digits in numbers and dollar amounts or adding extra digits can be costly. Don’t hit the send button until you’ve double-checked your work.