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Tips for Students: Hunting for College Money

Nail the FAFSA
"Everyone should apply for financial aid no matter what their family income is. Fill out the required forms and then be told that your family makes too much money – if you don't apply, you will not be considered for any form of financial aid like merit awards, work-study, or loans from a particular college."

– Guidance Office, Monroe-Woodbury High School

"My parents did most of the filling in of financial aid forms, but I wish I had done more. Now that I'm paying hundreds of dollars a month to pay back the loans, I feel like the band that never read the fine print and was signed to a bad record deal."

– Recent Grad, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Even if you don't think that you'll be eligible for financial aid, you should apply. It can't hurt to try, and you won't have a shot at any aid if you don't file the required applications. You don't have to be poor to receive financial aid, and many families lose out on thousands of dollars in loans and scholarships because they think they have too much money to qualify. Don't miss out on aid that can save you thousands.

The first and most important thing you need to do is fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – or, as it's widely known, the FAFSA.

  • This is the bedrock of all financial aid forms – without it, you can't get any aid at all – so it's extremely important that you file it on time and accurately. There is no filing fee, and you can file this form online if you wish. We suggest that you take the opportunity to file the FAFSA electronically by going to www.fafsa.ed.gov. You'll get your Student Aid Report sooner, and since the online form has internal checks built in, you'll avoid careless errors. If you do want to fill out the paper version, you can usually get it from your school or by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID.

  • You need to refile the FAFSA every year that you are in school to be considered for federal student aid, including grants, loans, and work-study programs. Often schools use this form to determine nonfederal aid as well. A change in your family's financial situation may increase or decrease the amount of aid you're receiving, and even if you didn't qualify one year, you might be eligible for aid the following year.

  • You should file the FAFSA early during the second semester of your senior year. You can't file it before January 1 – you need to give the government the full picture of your family's financial situation for the most recent fiscal year – but you should file it soon after that. The Department of Education will process FAFSA forms all year while you're in college, but most school aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so it's in your interest to apply early. In addition, each school has a different priority deadline, many as early as February or March, and you need to meet that deadline to get your full potential aid. It's not necessary to submit your and your parents' tax return to the IRS before submitting your FAFSA, but since you will need some important information from your and your parents' taxes while filling it out, you should try to complete them beforehand.

  • The FAFSA asks for details of your finances from both you and your parents, but you don't have to turn in your actual tax forms to your school or with the FAFSA. To ensure honesty, however, colleges do random audits where they check your information, and you risk losing all your aid if the information you supply to FAFSA does not match your filed tax forms.
It takes about six weeks for your FAFSA to be processed, and you'll then be sent a Student Aid Report (SAR). This report can look a bit confusing, but it's not so bad. The front page will have the date and something called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which will be followed by a number. That number is the amount of dollars that your family will be expected to contribute to your college education each year. The lower the amount, the more aid you'll likely receive. Here's an easy way to think about it:

Financial Need=Cost of Attendance-Expected Contribution

However, having a low expected contribution does not guarantee full aid. If your EFC is only $500, but you're applying to schools that cost $20,000, don't necessarily expect your financial aid package to fully cover the difference.

"My parents gasped when they looked at the expected contribution – it seemed ridiculously high. It was kind of panicky for a while, but we talked to the school where I really wanted to go, explained our circumstances, and they were able to give me some loans. Not ideal, but it was a solution."

– Recent Grad, Wesleyan University

Make sure you read your SAR carefully and review it for any errors you may have made. If you note any errors, make corrections on Part 2 of the form and mail it back promptly – you'll receive a new SAR. The federal processor of the FAFSA will send a copy of your SAR to each of the schools that you listed on the FAFSA, and they will use it to calculate your financial aid package.

Some schools require further paperwork than the FAFSA. They'll ask that you fill out their custom form or something called the PROFILE. The PROFILE is also administered by the College Board and is used by many private colleges to determine your eligibility for nongovernmental loans such as those provided by the school itself. The PROFILE is more in-depth than the FAFSA and uses different methodology to calculate your financial need. To file the PROFILE online, go to www. profileonline.collegeboard.com. Make sure to check with each of the schools to which you're applying to see if you need to file a PROFILE, or if there are any other forms you should worry about.

Many high schools offer information sessions for seniors on applying for aid and filling out the proper forms. If yours does, take advantage of them, and bring your parents. It's not the most fun you'll ever have, but the more help you get in this process, the better off you are.



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From Getting through College without Going Broke by Students Helping Students®. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, go to Amazon.


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