Jan 6, 2015

2015 FAFSA goes live

In case you missed the pre-game warmup, the online FAFSA application went “live” a couple of hours after the Waterford Crystal Times Square New Year's Eve Ball hit bottom at midnight on January 1st. 

And if you haven’t thought about financial aid in a few years, you may be surprised.  FAFSA is now housed in a user-friendly website with a number of snazzy new features, including mobile optimization and instructional videos that should make the 2015-16 FAFSA experience better than ever.

So there’s no excuse for delay.  It’s time to sharpen the pencils, put fresh batteries in the calculator, dig out tax returns, and organize bank records to tackle the single most important form necessary to make yourself eligible for millions in federal aid.

Because the best time to file the FAFSA is right NOW!

With thousands of families competing for money each year, you need to submit your application as soon as possible. The earlier the FAFSA is received, the earlier it will get processed, and the better positioned you will be for grants and scholarships. 

By the way, about 2 million students who would have qualified for federal financial aid missed out because they didn't file FAFSA, according to data from the 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study—the most recent available.

Of those students, 1.3 million would have qualified for a full Pell grant valued at $5,730 for the 2014-15 academic year, according to Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president at Edvisors Network and author of Filing the FAFSA—a really useful and free resource.

And much of this money is allocated on a first come, first served basis.  Get the picture?

So get started by organizing your documents. You need your Social Security number, driver’s license, income tax return, bank statements, and investment records.

Next, if you haven’t done so already, apply for a PIN.  Although the Department of Education plans to do away with PIN’s, they are still part of the process for now, as both a parent and the student will need PIN’s to sign the FAFSA electronically. The PIN application is easy and there’s no waiting—a PIN can be generated on the spot.

While a paper application is still an option (and can help as a tool for drafting responses off-line), it is recommended that you complete the web-based form and submit electronically to save time. If you have no internet access at home, libraries have online connections and schools usually will make accommodations to support online FAFSA filing. Ask your school counselor or college/career center specialist for help if necessary.

But keep in mind that if you complete the FAFSA in a public place, you need to take extra steps to protect your privacy.  Don’t walk away from the computer and be sure to completely sign off once you’re finished your work.

And don’t be fooled by scammers looking for your money.  This is the FREE Application for Federal Student Assistance. Don’t pay for PIN’s or application forms. If in doubt, ask.  FAFSA customer service representatives stand ready to respond online or by phone.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of early FAFSA filing.  Money is seldom an unlimited resource, and colleges are experiencing financial problems like the rest of us. They have deadlines and bureaucratic procedures to follow in the preparation of aid packages. And many of these deadlines come much sooner than you think.

Also, don’t delay just because you haven’t filed taxes yet or if you know you won’t have enough information to file taxes until closer to the April deadline. Use last year’s returns and plan to amend later. Corrections to the original 2015-16 FAFSA may be submitted up until September 17, 2016.  

But if you want to file your taxes first, keep in mind that the IRS Retrieval Tool is a very handy device.  If you meet eligibility requirements and have already filed, the tool will allow you to access the IRS tax return information needed to complete the FAFSA and will transfer that data directly into your FAFSA from the IRS website (note that if you don’t use the IRS Retrieval Tool, colleges may require that you submit a copy of your tax return or your parents’ tax return if you’re a dependent student).

Finally, please don’t delay because you’re worried about listing your colleges for the world to see on your FAFSA.  Everyone—even the Department of Education—knows this is a problem. Note that they have added a warning to the form this year.

Just be aware that there are ways around showing your entire hand to competing colleges.  You don’t have to list in order of preference.  You can list alphabetically or you can structure your list with your in-state institutions first. But with each strategy, there come unintended consequences most of which will not be affected by when you file.  So don’t use this as a delaying tactic.

“WIGIG—when it’s gone, it’s gone.” 

If you need financial aid, apply for it especially if you checked the little box on the college application indicating you intend to file.  Colleges will be looking for the paperwork to get started on your aid package.

Get FAFSA started now. Why wait?

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