Why is it that even the most organized, buttoned-up and get-it-done families struggle to collect their information and complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid www.fafsa.ed.gov)? It's important to fill it out and submit it as early as possible since applications are considered on a first-come, first-serve basis.
I think we can chalk it up to general avoidance. It's tough dealing with the harsh material reality of the cost of sending your child to college as well as the emotional reality of an emptier nest. Whatever the answer is, if you are the parent of a high school senior and haven't filled out your FAFSA yet, you can comfort yourself that other parents delay, too.
Here are some FAFSA facts and recommendations:
The biggest question most people have is "Is it worth it for me to complete the form?" Most financial aid, whether the source is a college or university, your state or a foundation, requires the completed FAFSA. If you are interested in need-based aid such as government-funded Pell Grants, which you don't need to repay, or state-sponsored aid; student loans such as Perkins and Stafford or PLUS Loans for parent borrowers; or work-study programs on college campuses, you will definitely need to fill out the FAFSA.
Merit-based aid is a little different. Some colleges award it based off nothing more than the student's application. The amounts can vary greatly, but students are frequently notified of these awards in their acceptance letters. As to whether you'll need to complete the FAFSA for other merit-based grants (money that doesn't need to be repaid) you'll need to check with the organization or the college directly.
Before you start collecting all of your expense receipts for the past year, create a Federal Student Aid ID, called a PIN, and use the FAFSA4caster to estimate your eligibility for federal student aid. While you are at the FAFSA website, check out your state's deadline for applications; they vary and some are as early as Feb. 15.
>What materials do I need?
You will need: your Social Security number, your driver's license number and your most recent tax return(s). If you file in January, you can estimate the most recent year's taxes. You can make corrections to the form in February or March. You also will need your most recent bank statements and business, mortgage and investment records.
>What else do I need to know?
If your son or daughter has applied to private colleges you will also need to complete the CSS Profile form which can be found at www.collegeboard.com. This form is more detailed and asks about income and liabilities, including family assets, veterans' benefits and child support payments.
Here's some good news: According to Cappex.com, two-thirds of all undergraduate college students receive some type of financial aid.
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.