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How to Support Students with the Early FAFSA

by Will Geiger, on Oct 17, 2016 11:44:11 AM

fafsa-story2-financial-aid-blog-header-1180x420.jpgI opened up the thick envelope and was immediately confused. There were lots of columns, numbers, and jargon I was not totally familiar with. I felt like I was reading something in a completely different language. Instead, I was just reading the financial aid award from the graduate school I had just been accepted to. The application process seemed easy enough, but now I was trying to figure out the complex system known as financial aid.

Financial aid is confusing, but also incredibly important. After all, how are you going to go to school if you can’t pay for it?

Fortunately, there have been some changes to the financial aid process which have made it simpler and more transparent. Two of these changes are new tools such as the Net Price Calculator and College Scorecard are invaluable resources for students, parents, and counselors. These tools help give students the data that matters when choosing a college and also help estimate need-based financial aid.

Another big change has to do with the FAFSA or Free Application for Student Aid (which is how students can apply for federal grants and loans). Previously, families had to wait for tax information in the new year or try to estimate it. Now students and families can use prior prior tax information when filling out the FAFSA. And no, I did not accidentally type prior twice! Prior prior refers to the year before last, which means that all of the tax information will be available and accurate.

The other big benefit of this is that students can apply for financial aid starting on October 1st. This means that you can complete your FAFSA now and that there is really no excuse for a late FAFSA!

One big question from students and families is whether you can still wait and submit newer tax information. This could be important if there was a big change in your family’s financial circumstances since last year. Under the new FAFSA changes, you have to submit the older tax information (so for this year it would be 2015 tax information). If there have been changes in your family’s financial situation, you can contact the financial aid offices at the colleges you are applying to and update them.

Here are some resources and tips that are really helpful for helping students navigate the financial aid process.

  • Financial Aid Toolkit (you can find some great resources and videos that are made for guidance counselors here)

  • Students who qualify for an SAT fee waiver will also qualify for a CSS Profile fee waiver (the CSS profile is another application that some schools use to award institutional aid)

  • The FAFSA needs to be submitted every year, so when filling out the forms, students should use an e-mail address that they will be using for a while (and not their high school e-mail)

  • Federal Student Aid IDs have replaced the FAFSA PIN (students and parents need to create their own individual IDs).

Educators play an integral role in the financial aid application process for students. At the same time, advising on financial aid can be difficult given limited time during the busy school day. Financial aid is also a very personal process for students and sometimes they won’t reach out for help.

One of the best approaches is to connect your students and families with the different financial aid tools and resources that are available (such as the Net Price Calculator and College Scorecard). Better Make Room's Up Next campaign is another great tool that helps students stay on top of both admissions and financial aid deadlines via text messaging (you can sign up by texting "COLLEGE" to 44044).

College financial aid officers can also be valuable partners in this process as forms and deadlines can vary from school to school. I always encourage families to reach out to the particular colleges if they have specific questions. The financial aid officers are the people best equipped to answer questions about the nitty gritty of the process.

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Topics:college admission