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What They Don't Tell You at Financial Aid Night

We welcome our guest blogger, Stuart P Siegel, of FAFSAssist. Stuart has been a financial aid expert for 23 years helping families save thousands on college. 

Parents can stop hyperventilating if they miss the opening day of FAFSA. October 1st is a meaningless date.  It’s the first day the FAFSA is available for filing but the financial aid season runs until June 30th each year.  Think of it as opening day of fishing season.  You’ve got every Yahoo out on the lake creating big waves, their casting lines, hooking people’s lips, while drinking lots of beer.  And afterwards, because the fish have all be scared away, there are plenty of fish left. It’s an urban legend that you will lose out on free money if you file on say, October 10th or 30th.

The free money the media says is at risk are Federal Supplemental Opportunity Grants or SEOGs. This grant is reserved for the highest achieving students from very low-income families who also qualify for Federal Pell Grants.  The typical amount awarded ranges from $750.00 to $2,000.  The maximum amount is 4,000 and in my 23 years as a financial aid consultant I’ve seen only a handful of students receive that much.   

So as not to break into a cold sweat thinking you won’t be able to send your child to college know that the vast majority of financial aid deadlines are after January 1; you should check with each college.  In fact, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. has a financial aid deadline of February 1st and so does Harvard.   If your student is applying Early Decision or Early Action the dates range from November 1st and December 15th.  Early Decision II and Early Action II have deadlines in January.

What many parents don’t know is that many college deadlines are not hard.  While you do not want to miss a priority deadline, most colleges will allow you to file late (as a rule I do not recommend it, especially with public universities). 

Parents should be organized with their tax returns and financial statements and prepared to answer the questions on the FAFSA, CSS Profile and verification forms.  Understanding what is being asked and knowing how to respond in a way that portrays the true reality of your family’s financial situation is key.

Being organized means having signed Federal Tax Returns for parents and students (if they filed), W-2s, 1099s, business returns and even having an IRS Tax Transcript on hand just in case the FAFSA IRS DRT doesn’t work for you. The IRS DRT or Data Retrieval Tool transfers tax data directly to the FAFSA but it doesn’t always work and there are some returns it won’t work for including Married Filing Separately and changes to the parents marital status.  Tricky stuff if you’re newly separated or divorced and still filed a joint return.

After your student applies, a receipt for the admission application will arrive along with it a student ID, temporary username and password, and a web portal where admissions and financial aid information is stored.  This portal should be the first place you go to find out the status of your child’s admission application and financial aid status.  Keep a journal of all of this information as it will save you a ton of pain later.  If you are unable to sleep worrying about a form that you think should have received, go to the portal first.  If it’s not there, it may be because the admission and financial aid staff may have not processed the forms.  Give it a week or so before calling the college. 

Questions about the value of real estate and other assets are often confusing.  Knowing how to answer correctly can mean the difference in getting free money or getting nothing.  And you would never know what it was that made your student a Full Pay.

A recent Hechinger Report news story ranked FAFSA No. 1 among the “most complex and convoluted higher education forms.” Students and families are required to navigate a host of confusing and redundant questions and submit information difficult for many to obtain.

The complexity of the forms not only prevents families from getting the support they need — it has also been shown to prevent students well prepared for college from ever enrolling.

But don’t let that stop you from applying for financial aid.  Parents aren’t always the best judges of whether they will qualify for aid.   With SARS-CoV-2 taking a heavy toll on cash strapped colleges and universities, colleges are giving the wealthy even more free money at the expense of those who truly need it.

One last tip and I’ll close:  If the college says they don’t have your child’s CSS Profile and you know you filed it, they have it, they just don’t know it.  Same with the FAFSA.  More often than not, what happened is that the student’s social security number was entered incorrectly on their college applications. 

I tell my clients that I can’t keep them from worrying, but by following a plan, they might, on occasion, get a good nights sleep.

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