Jan 4, 2016

2016 FAFSA kicks off

In case you missed the email, 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 2016-17 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 early 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. 

The U.S. Department of Education is the largest provider of student financial aid in the nation The Office of Federal Student Aid annually makes available more than $150 billion in federal grants, loans, and work-study funds to more than 13 million students paying for college or career school.
And much of this money is allocated on a first come, first served basis.

But each year, about 2 million students who would have qualified for federal financial aid miss out because they didn’t file FAFSA. Get the picture?

So get started by applying for an FSA ID—a username and password combination that allows you to sign your FAFSA electronically.  It’s personal and it’s free!

Getting an FSA ID before you begin the FAFSA could prevent processing delays, and it only takes a few minutes to apply.  Note that the FSA ID replaced the Federal Student Aid PIN on May 10, 2015.  If you already have a PIN, you can link your information to your new FSA ID by entering your PIN while registering for the FSA ID. This may save some time.  If you’ve forgotten your PIN, no worries. You can either enter the answer to your PIN “challenge question” during the FSA ID registration process or you just create your FSA ID from scratch.  A PIN is not required to create an FSA ID.

Once your information is verified with the Social Security Administration (one to three days from the date you apply), you will be able to use your FSA ID to access personal information on fafsa.gov, StudentAid.gov/login, StudentLoans.gov and other related websites. Most importantly, you’ll be able to start completing your FAFSA.

Begin by organizing your documents. You need Social Security numbers, driver’s license, income tax return, bank statements, and investment records. The one thing you don’t need for FAFSA is cash! Everything about the FAFSA is free, so if a website asks for payment, you are not dealing with the official FAFSA site.

Next, carefully select the school year for which you are applying for financial aid.  If you plan to attend college between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017, choose the 2016-17 school year option.  This is a common mistake, so be careful. If you are applying for a summer session, contact the financial aid office at your college to find out which school year you should select when you complete your FAFSA.

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.

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 2016-17 FAFSA may be submitted up until September 13, 2017.  

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.  Starting with the 2016-17 FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education will no longer share your list of colleges with the schools receiving your FAFSA data. Keep in mind, however, that your list will still be available to state aid agencies and some states require that students list an in-state public college first to qualify for state aid.

But don’t use this as a delaying tactic.  Just list in-state public colleges first on the FAFSA to ensure eligibility.

Because, “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 begin working on your aid package.

Get FAFSA started now. Why wait?

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