Financial aid for college: tips for the new FAFSA form

For students in need of financial aid, the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) becomes available online Saturday.

By , Staff writer

For as much help as possible in paying for college, filling out the FAFSA – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – is a crucial first step.

The 2011-12 FAFSA becomes available online Saturday, and experts urge that students and parents fill it out as soon as they can. Some key financial information is required, but you don’t need to wait until after filing 2010 tax forms.

The government has been striving to streamline the experience, which has long had a reputation for being confusing and pull-out-your-hair frustrating.

Recommended: Five mistakes to avoid on your college application

The website is more secure and easier to navigate. It offers more “skip logic” to eliminate questions that don’t apply to you.

It has new searchable help features. And if you’ve used the site before (since the form has to be completed for each year of college), it will guide your steps based on that history.

You will need your 2010 tax information eventually, but you’ll be able to add it in later. You can fill out the initial forms with estimates to “hold your place in the aid line,” since some programs award aid on a first-come, first-serve basis, says Mary Fallon, a spokeswoman for Student Financial Aid Services Inc., which offers assistance on the FAFSA for a fee, or for free for those who qualify.

Once you do file your taxes, you can save time by opting to let the Internal Revenue Service plug information directly into your FAFSA form (or it can make corrections, if you filed the FAFSA first).

One new question for students this year: What high school did you attend? The intent is to help high schools identify and assist students who haven’t yet submitted the FAFSA, according to Mark Kantrowitz, a financial-aid expert and publisher of FinAid.org.

Also, a new requirement this year: Parents who are interested only in non-need-based loans, such as PLUS loans and unsubsidized Stafford loans, must file a FAFSA.

Don’t fall for online scams that charge you to fill out the FAFSA. Legitimate professional services can be found, but they will say upfront that you have the option to fill out the form for free, and they won’t suggest that a family try to “game the system” by being dishonest about income, Ms. Fallon notes.

Also, be sure to list your name as it appears on your Social Security card and double-check all your numbers. Transposing numbers is a common mistake that can delay the processing of your FAFSA.

Be aware of your intended colleges’ deadlines. States also have FAFSA deadlines related to distributing state financial aid. Connecticut has one of the earliest deadlines – Feb. 15. To check your state’s deadline, go to this Web page.

Over the next several months, many communities will be offering assistance to fill out the FAFSA. The Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority offers FAFSA Completion Nights at several high schools in February and March. And the New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation offers free one-on-one appointments every Saturday in January and February.

If you or a friend just needs some encouragement to get started, check out this informative FAFSA rap on YouTube. The guidance counselor and students at Williamsburg Charter High School in Brooklyn collaborated with college financial-aid experts to create the video to demystify the process.

“I wanna go to college but I don’t know how to pay,” the Charta Squad raps. “I asked Santa for tuition but he didn’t look my way.... The cost is overwhelming, it’s blowin’ me away. Tuition, room and board, and books? I ain’t in the NBA. Just when I thought my dreams were ’bout to pass away, I found my salvation, the F-A-F-S-A.”

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