CLICK ON THE VIDEO ABOVE THIS ARTICLE TO HEAR MORE ABOUT THE FAFSA FROM LIZ ESHLEMAN, DIRECTOR OF COLLEGE PLANNING AND PLACEMENT AT DEVON PREPARATORY SCHOOL.
It's an on-line application established by the U.S. Department of Education that must be filled out each year your child is in college. Without it, you and/or your child will find it extremely difficult to acquire government-related student aid like Stafford Loans and Plus Loans, which can come in very handy as low-cost ways to defer some of the expense of college. There are also Federal Grants (which do not have to be paid back) that likewise depend on having a current FASFA on record. In fact, colleges need this information when assessing what type of loan or grant package they're willing to offer.
Here's the link to the FAFSA website:
The site gives instructions on filling out and filing the form, but I will tell you that the first time you tackle the FASFA, it's complicated and time consuming. You must acquire a PIN to electronically sign the form, which I found to be somewhat cumbersome. For example, I had to wait a couple of days before the system would validate my new PIN. Gathering all the necessary documents and information is also a pain in the neck, but it's important to do this carefully and thoroughly. Once the form is filled out and filed, though, the online program saves a lot of the information, which makes it much easier to complete the next time.
Since the FAFSA is mainly used to secure government loans and grants, you may be wondering if it's necessary. After all, you may feel that you are either ineligible for such aid, or that you don't need it. But college advisors I've interviewed suggest that everybody should file. There are two reasons. First, some people are often surprised that they do indeed qualify for at least a small, low-interest loan. Second, circumstances can change. The loss of a job, or an illness in the family can suddenly and dramatically alter your ability to pay. Without the FAFSA, you will be cut-off from a sizable and willing source of help.
Another thing to remember is that this is a free application, and you shouldn't respond to any offers either on the web, or through the mail, to fill-out the FASFA for you, unless you get onto the FAFSA website and really feel lost. But you can more than likely do it on your own, assuming you have access to a computer and all the necessary personal records. I believe there's a way to file by mail, as well, but the online filing is by far the safer and more efficient avenue. Since the information you'll need to complete the form includes tax records and financial details from both parent and child, some parents prefer to fill-out the form for their kids to keep certain information like income and assets private. But students can easily fill-out the form themselves, as long as the above material is provided to them.
As stated, colleges use much of the FAFSA information to assess whether to give your student and/or you loans or grants. Some of the things financial aid officers consider in determining eligibility for so-called need-based aid, is salary of the student and parents, certain personal assets (some colleges include home equity as an asset, others do not), other siblings in college, younger siblings, and the proximity of the parents to retirement age. Special circumstances, like changes in job status, or a death/illness in the family, can be entered into the FASFA as they arise, which can quickly affect eligibility.
When applying for financial aid from a college, you'll be dealing with the college's financial aid office, but without the FASFA completed and submitted on time each year, there will only be so much a given college will be able or willing to do for you. So, make sure this free form is filled out as early in the year as you can manage (depending on when you complete your tax forms), and remember to file one FAFSA for each student you currently have in college.
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