>Q: How do I start the process?
A: Get a copy of the FAFSA online at www.fafsa.ed.gov or by calling (800) 433-3243. You should also request a free copy of "The Student Guide: Financial Aid from the U.S. Department of Education."
>Q: Is it really worth completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)? I assume the government will determine we have earned too much money to qualify for any aid.
A: Yes. All families should apply for two reasons: 1) It is not that hard to complete the forms and 2) you may be surprised and receive some welcome financial assistance. Many families mistakenly assume they won't qualify and don't apply.
>Q: Is it necessary to reapply each year?
A: Yes, most financial aid offices at colleges require an annual application since your financial situation can change. Your eligibility for financial aid may vary significantly depending upon the number of family members who are attending college. Additionally, students are required to meet standards of performance, including minimum credit hours and achieving a minimum grade point average. After the first year, you will receive a renewal application which includes preprinted information from the previous year's FAFSA application.
>Q: Are students responsible for loans? Are parents required to co-sign all loans? How much can a parent borrow? What's the interest rate? Can a parent transfer the loan to the student?
A: Generally, students are responsible for their own loans. Lenders may require parents to co-sign if there is insufficient credit history or if the student is underage. Parents can take out Federal PLUS loans to support their children. Eligibility requirements for the PLUS loans include: a credit check on the parent borrower, being U.S. citizens or eligible noncitizens (both parent and student) and being the student's biological or adoptive parent. The student also must be enrolled at least half-time in a school that participates in the Direct Loan Program. The annual limit on a PLUS Loan is equal to the student's cost of attendance minus any other financial aid the student receives. The interest rate is fixed at 7.9 percent. Interest is charged from the date of the first disbursement until the loan is paid in full. A PLUS Loan made to the parent cannot be transferred to the student.
>Q: Is the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) on the FAFSA the most a family will need to pay at any college or university?
A: No, the EFC is calculated without considering home equity as part of the family's assets, but many colleges will request that information and factor it into their final Student Aid Report (SAR).
Q: If a student receives a scholarship from outside the college or university, is it necessary to report that to the college financial aid office?
A: Yes, you must report any outside scholarships or "portable" money a student has been awarded. Unfortunately, the aid package will be adjusted to reflect the scholarship. Fortunately, at many colleges, any additional scholarship monies are used to offset the self-help (loans) portion of the financial aid package.
Q: How is the financial aid process different for children with divorced parents?
A: Go to www.finaid.org, click on parents and type in "divorce" into the search box. You'll find information on obligations of noncustodial parents and stepparents as well as the education tax benefits for noncustodial parents.
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.