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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Fill out the FAFSA January 1st!

(The following article is (c) 2012 by J.P. Paulus. This may article may be reproduced ONLY with the permission of the author.)

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, is the backbone to getting federal and state financial aid for college. If you have a student going back to college, or starting for the first time next fall (or even thinking about it), then you as a family need to fill out the FAFSA, and do it as soon as you can right after January 1st.

A completed FAFSA puts you in line for financial aid, not just on the federal level, but also for states, and other resources. (Scholarships are different category, and need another type of application and a separate article.)

The FAFSA is a key form used by the US Department of Education, much in the same way the 1040 is the fundamental form for the IRS.  After you fill out the FAFSA, you will receive a number called the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. But rather than the number that you should expect to pay, consider the EFC more like a credit score – a measurement of your financial need. An EFC of 0 (zero) would qualify you for the maximum amount of federal and state aid, if it is available through the school.

In order to fill out the FAFSA, you need to make sure that you go to www.FAFSA.GOV and NOT the FAFSA.COM website. You might not trust the government for many things, but you can trust a .gov website.  Also, there is no reason for you to pay money to fill out the FREE application for federal student aid (which will do).

There are three items that are important to filling out the FAFSA:
1.       Social security cards
2.       W2 Forms
3.       Bank statements
The student needs the social security card, not just for the number, but also the correct spelling of the student’s name on the card. Any mistakes or variations (like a nickname) can cause serious problem. The parent, however, does not need a social security card or number, though it is helpful.

A driver’s license or state ID can also expedite the process.

W2 forms are needed from the parents (and the students, if available). Please note that providing this information does not obligate the parent to pay for any of their child’s education.  And if you (as a parent) feel you don’t make enough money to contribute anything to your child’s education – then you contribution to this section will actually help your child get more financial aid than perhaps if they filed as an independent student.

Bank statements also provide a snapshot of a family’s financial strength.

Parents who filled out the FAFSA back when they went to school need to make sure they have a shift in their mindset. In the “olden” days” of the FAFSA (back when our family filled out the FAFSA), the conventional wisdom was that you filled it out after taxes. The idea was that the paperwork was hard to update and very cumbersome, and you would need to send in copies of forms to “verify” any estimates, which would delay your financial aid. The time, and the opportunity for information to get lost, were very legitimate concerns back then.

With the modern wonders of the web, FAFSA now has a one-click tool where you can download your tax information, as long you filed electronically (such as TurboTax, or a professional service such as H&R Block).  And rather than calculate each student (and each update) by hand, the computer can easily calculate and update information, so financial aid officers actually embrace this method of estimating your FAFSA information.

Students can fill out the FAFSA anytime after January 1. So right after you say “Happy New Year!”, you can do it. Or, more likely, when you wake at 3pm in the afternoon.

This can also be a great event for churches after Sunday service. If you have access to a computer lab, one advisor can help several families through the FAFSA process.

Who should fill it out? Obviously, those going into college next year, but especially returning students, and even adults who are even just thinking about going to college. There’s no obligation to go to a specific college by filling out the form. You can easily change which colleges receive your information. And again, for parents, there is also no legal obligation to pay for the college education, even though you have given your information.

Another reason to fill out the FAFSA: colleges can not give you a financial aid package without the FAFSA being completed. You will also need to have been accepted at that college as well, because good colleges will not offer money to students they don't think will succeed at their school. 

We must emphasize once more, it is vital that students fill out the form as soon as possible, after January 1.

For example, in Illinois, the MAP grant is worth up to $4820. Again, in the “olden” days, the MAP grant money ran out by August (when most schools start their fall semester). In 2012, the money ran out March 23, which is a month before taxes are due (and usually done).

There is much more information that could be shared. But one last note to consider: the FAFSA is just a snapshot of a family’s financial situation. Colleges are aware that things happen. The key to getting exceptions to financial aid (called professional judgment) is documentation. The FAFSA is the prime example of it, but certainly not the limit. Contact your financial aid office if you think the EFC does not accurately reflect your family’s situation. 

Here are important links to see

Individuals who need help with financial aid issues should go to or call 800-4-FED-AID (in Illinois, they can go to or call the Illinois Student Assistance Commission at 800-899-4722 ).

JP Paulus of Do-Gooder Consulting works with churches and nonprofits, and even businesses to help them integrate college access training into their programs. More information is available at