Ready, set, borrow! The annual race to score money to pay for college starts October 1, when the new FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) becomes available for the 2019-2020 school year. And since much of the money is given out on a first-come, first-served basis, it pays to get going right away.
After writing some recent columns bemoaning the $1.4 trillion mountain of student loan debt, I hate to provide the instruction manual for taking on this debt. But not only is the FAFSA form required to apply for federal student aid; it also forms the basis for distributing free money in the form of grants, work/study programs and many scholarships.
This year the process will be easier and more convenient. Applicants can now fill out the forms on a smartphone, making it easier for them to gather information from their parents. It’s all done through the new MyStudentAid app, which can be downloaded for either Apple or Android devices.
The app is expected to be ready soon to retrieve the parents’ 2017 income tax forms. Currently, the retrieval tool is only available to those who file online at FAFSA.ed.gov. That 2017 information will be used for filing, although if family circumstances have changed since those tax forms were filed last April, there is an opportunity to update the information. So don’t wait until January when you have your 2018 year-end income to start filling out the forms.
It was just three years ago that the FAFSA process was moved up to October 1. According to a new report from Sallie Mae, “How America Pays for College 2018,” about one-third of those who filed FAFSA for the academic year 2018-19 did so between October 1 and the end of December. The remaining nearly two-thirds of filers waited until January 2018 or later.
Here are a few more tips for FAFSA filers.
—Gather your information in advance. Start by setting up your account and creating a password. This process will create your FSA ID. Parents and children can and should create separate passwords, helpful for parents who want to keep income information private and out of view of either the student or a divorced spouse. You’ll need social security numbers, birth dates, driver’s license numbers, 2017 tax information and W-2 forms to fill out the forms completely. Be sure to save the information every time you use the website or app!
—Start now. Nearly 60 percent of high school seniors fill out the forms. The earlier you file, the sooner you get your SAR (student aid report), the form that lets you know how much aid you might be eligible to receive. This report helps schools put together a total financial aid package for you.
—If you’re applying to a state college or university, list that school first on your application. It is an indication to the school of your priorities. And many state schools have earlier deadlines, so be sure to check the deadlines for your state.
—Remember the FAFSA is free! There is no need to pay anyone to help you file the forms. But most night school guidance officers will help you choose schools where you have the best chance of being accepted.
—Check out scholarship websites such as Scholarships.com, Fastweb.com, Tuitionfundingsources.com and the scholarship search service at SallieMae.com. For sure, the earliest applicants get the money on these free search websites.
Taking control of the financial aid process is the first step toward a successful college career. If you can’t be bothered to treat this as a major project, perhaps college isn’t for you. The only thing worse than graduating with the burden of student loan debt, is not graduating yet still having to repay some debt. Now is the time to get serious about college — and money. That’s the Savage Truth.