Need help completing the FAFSA, otherwise known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid?
I can sympathize with you. I’m filing out the FAFSA application myself this year and some of the schools that my son Ben is applying to have financial aid deadlines as early as Feb. 1.
If you’re struggling with the FAFSA form or CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, you don’t have to pay someone to get answers. Today I’m sharing three free FAFSA resources that can help:
Federal Student Aid Information Center. If you have FAFSA questions, you can get answers direct from the FAFSA folks. You can contact the federal FAFSA office by telephone or email. You can also receive FAFSA online assistance by hitting the “Live Help” button located on the online FAFSA form.
TuitionCoach. This financial aid website is hosting free FAFSA Webinars this month, which can help answer your financial aid questions. You can find the list of dates and times for the financial aid Webinars on TuitionCoach’s website.
College Goal Sunday. During the month of January, this ambitious volunteer program holds financial aid help sessions in states across the country. You can find programs in your state by visiting College Goal Sunday’s website.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also blogs about college for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow me (CollegeBlogs) on Twitter.
We have followed Ms. O’Shaughnessy’s work, and agree with much of her philosophy in regard to how families should approach college search. We also recognize the value of the resources she has highlighted in the article.
So we do not wish to be over critical, but we feel she has fallen into the trap of oversimplification here.
The old definition of a bargain is “Getting what you thought you paid for”, and, although the free resources you highlight will certainly be worthwhile, Tuition Coach is a paid service (which we endorse), and we did not get your book, The College Solution, free of charge. So, perhaps, paying for expertise should not be brushed off quite as nonchalantly as it is in this piece.
We would argue strongly that a family can reap a rich return on investment by working with a qualified independent college counselor.
The FAFSA is, in many ways, a daunting document. However, it is only one element in the overall process of college search, admissions and financial aid. Much of the stress relating to the FAFSA is that most families don’t plan the financial aspects of college in a timely manner.
This issue becomes acute when the CSS Profile and Institutional Methodology come into play, and even more so when the situation involves divorced and separated parents, or a small business owner.
It may well suit many families to have their FAFSA prepared by a qualified and reputable preparer (just as they do with tax returns). But it does not alleviate the tension of submitting these forms and then waiting to see how much the system is going to impose upon them for their Expected Family Contribution.
The secret is to put a structured and informed game plan in place, to minimize the unknown factors and anticipate what is required.
Whether parents go it alone or use some outside advice, we would suggest you recommend that parents at least do some homework on how the aid formulas work before attempting to complete the FAFSA, to say nothing of the CSS Profile.
Even doing one’s homework cannot always prevent mistakes. For example, on page 27 of The College Solution even you (unintentionally, we are sure) communicated erroneous information about the impact of 529 savings plans on college financial aid. (We will explain this point in our blog).
One option you’ve not noted is that the federal government now authorizes students and families may get help from fee-based federal student aid application preparation services. (The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 re-approved this option.) Legitimate professionals charge modest fees and must inform students of the “free” option of preparing the application themselves (or with some of the volunteer help you’ve noted).
Not everyone has the interest, time, or knowledge to prepare the some 130 asset, income, and dependency questions on the FAFSA – so just as some people get help from a professional income tax preparer – fee-based FAFSA preparation services can help maximize students’ aid.
The biggest advantage is accuracy – the best FAFSA preparers not only use computer reviews but read every answer. The Dept. of Education only uses a computer review and that can approve applications that have incorrect answers, which could lower a student’s aid award.
College Parents of America, an organization that searches the Web for the best services for parents with college-bound students, recommends Student Financial Aid Services, Inc. for those who want professional help. Its president James Boyle was on radio programs this week. http://www.collegeparents.org/cpa/about-ontheair-radio.html