No articles found to show on this page.
Will filling out more than 100 questions on the official form for financial aid be any easier this year? Maybe.
After all, this year there’s an app for that. The new app to fill out the FAFSA form is called myStudentAid and was rolled out in a beta version this summer. It’s available from both the Apple App Store and Google Play.
A full version of the app is expected to be up and running Oct. 1 when the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for next fall is first available.
“It’s another tool in the toolbox for getting people to complete the FAFSA,” said Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
What’s key to realize, she said, is that not all families have a computer at home or have internet access at home. So it can be more of a hassle to try to fill out the FAFSA online for those families. But many people do have a smartphone that can do the trick.
About 95 percent of Americans own a cellphone, making the form easily accessible, according to the U.S. Department of Education. If the form is easier to understand and complete, more families are likely to complete the form and submit it.
The paper form itself really is too overwhelming – so you want to fill this one out online.
Another plus: The Department of Education has done a makeover of its website to make it more friendly if you’re using a tablet or a smartphone.
Remember, there is no cost to filling out the application and having it sent to interested colleges. See www.fafsa.gov.
The federal financial aid form is essential to gain access to grants, federal student loans and work-study programs.
“The FAFSA is really the key to unlocking that aid,” said Rick Castellano, a spokesperson for Sallie Mae.
The earlier kickoff – nearly a year before you’d start attending school – can give high school seniors a better picture of what type of loans and scholarships potential colleges might offer to help cover the bills.
As a college student, you’d need to fill out the FAFSA for each year to obtain loans.
So what else do you need to know about filling out a form that has had a reputation for triggering headaches?
More: Majority of parents saving for kid’s college have socked away less than $10,000
More: U.S. News college rankings: Where are the best values, top choices for low-income students
More: Saving for college: How grandparents can help without hurting financial aid
What’s my first step?
Create a FSA ID before you even dig out any paperwork, according to Pam Fowler, executive director of financial aid at the University of Michigan. You don’t need to wait until the Oct. 1 kickoff to create that ID.
You’re entering a username and a password here. And you give some answers to challenge questions to prove your identity.
“Write down the username and password, and answers to the questions somewhere, since it can be challenging to reset the FSA ID if you forget it,” suggests Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research for Savingforcollege.com.
Kantrowitz said applicants use the same FSA ID each year. But they need to change the password once every 18 months, but the username would remain the same.
How can I make the process easier?
On Oct. 1 or after, use the Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool to easily access the IRS tax return information needed to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
It’s one way to avoid errors. “You’re not looking at your tax return and then manually typing in numbers,” McCarthy said.
One of the biggest reasons people should file online, and not by paper, is the ability to use the IRS retrieval tool, she said.
One tip: “You won’t be able to see the tax information on the FAFSA. That is for your protection,” Fowler said. “But it will be on the application when the school receives it.”
Parents who have used the data retrieval tool say it greatly simplifies things. But read questions carefully. You’re using the 2017 tax return if you’re applying for aid for the 2019-20 school year.
Keep in mind that the IRS has boosted security protections against identity thieves and FAFSA filers will need specific details from their 2017 tax returns.
“If they don’t have a copy readily available they can check their tax preparer or tax software company on how to get a copy,” said Luis Garcia, a spokesperson for the IRS in Detroit.
Or download a transcript from the IRS. People also can get a transcript by mail.
One potential snag: Did you need to amend your 2017 tax return? You can still use the data retrieval system.
The financial aid office, though, will know if you filed an amended tax return, so they will likely ask you for a copy of the amended tax return, Kantrowitz said.
If parents have two or three children in college at the same time, you still must submit a FAFSA for each child. But you are able to transfer much of the parent information from one form to another for a brother or sister.
Important point for families with two or more in college: The link to transfer displays on the “Confirmation” page after the student and parent sign and submit the FAFSA. The link is only available from the “Confirmation” page. As a result, you want to take the time to look for it as soon as you’ve submitted your first child’s FAFSA. You cannot return to the “Confirmation” page later to access the link.
It’s a myth that you won’t be eligible for financial aid simply because a brother or sister didn’t get financial aid when heading to college last year.
The number of family members in college might have a favorable impact on your financial aid eligibility, according to Castellano.
What should I gather in advance?
Take time to find the correct Social Security numbers for the student and the parents by finding Social Security cards. Get your driver’s license numbers ready. Know the birth dates for your parents.
Get your tax returns ready because you need to enter some requested information at the IRS website for the data retrieval tool “exactly as it appears on your tax return.”
Know that the FAFSA asks about “untaxed income,” including things like child support received, and interest income. You will need to report the value of savings accounts, stocks and bonds, and real estate, but not the value of the home where your family lives. You do not need to report the value of your pension plan, 401(k), 403(b) or IRAs.
If in high school, be sure to list any colleges that you’re considering attending. You can remove colleges later. “You must have at least one college listed on the FAFSA to submit the FAFSA,” Kantrowitz said. “Other colleges can be added later. It is easy to add colleges.”
Sallie Mae lists FAFSA tips online at www.salliemae.com/fafsa.
Tips for students in unique situations can also found at www.nasfaa.org
And there’s a 66-page booklet by the U.S. Department of Education on completing the FAFSA. The department’s FAFSA hotline is 800-433-3243. Talk with your financial aid office at the school or schools you are considering.
When it comes to using the new app, do some advance research as well. Until Sept. 30, only the FAFSA for the 2018-19 school year is available on the app.
A potential snag: “Students, parents, and access advisers need to pay particular attention to the signature process when multiple signatures are required. Never tap the ‘Start Over’ button when logging in to complete a parent signature, as that will erase all previous information entered by the student,” according to advice on the app at the National College Access Network blog.
Signatures are required from everybody who provided data for the FAFSA. FAFSAs without signatures are rejected.
The blog also notes that as of Oct. 1, the FAFSA app will be able to access the IRS Data Retrieval tool. “However, we know the IRS pages will not be mobile-optimized and therefore may be somewhat awkward to view and use on the phone,” the blog noted.
Should I file the FAFSA in October for next fall?
“File early. Early filers have access to the greatest number of scarce gift aid dollars and enough time to compare aid offers and make informed decisions,” said Rick Shipman, executive director of financial aid for Michigan State University.
At the same time, though, you don’t want to carelessly rush through the form.
“Answer all questions. If your answer for a financial question is ‘none,’ put in a zero instead of leaving the answer blank,” Shipman said.
Round cents to the nearest dollar. Errors in numbers will produce the wrong result when calculating need or cause your FAFSA to be rejected.
Shipman said a common mistake for students with divorced, separated or remarried parents is using the incorrect data for their parents. Read the instructions before answering.
Am I home free once I file the FAFSA?
“A few days to a few weeks after you file the FAFSA, you will receive your Student Aid Report,” Kantrowitz said. “This shows you the information that was included on your FAFSA and gives you an opportunity to make corrections.”
Shipman said it’s important to keep track of your FAFSA processing status in order to give yourself enough time to correct any trouble spots before you need aid to pay for school.
Review the Student Aid Report to find any estimate of the Federal Pell Grant and Federal Student Loan eligibility.
You’d receive a financial award letter or notification about the same time you’d receive an offer of admission for each college, if you’re a senior in high school and applied for financial aid by the college’s priority deadline.
But some families will be asked by the school’s financial aid office to verify their FAFSA information. McCarthy said it’s estimated that about 30 percent of filers could be selected for further verification.
If families use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, she said, they are less likely to be selected to be part of the verification process.
It’s important to take the steps to verify your information, though.
Financial aid administrators have the right to ask for any documentation they feel is necessary to complete verification, Kantrowitz said.
If the family refuses to supply this documentation, the college is prohibited from disbursing federal student aid to the student.
Will there be fewer questions on the FAFSA form?
No. There are still more than 100 questions on the form. It’s a lot of information – and many argue way too much, considering that some information is already available elsewhere, McCarthy said.
Financial aid officers would like to see simplification. But an act of Congress is needed to do that.
Contact Susan Tompor: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-222-8876. Follow Susan on Twitter @Tompor.