Besides getting back to routines and putting New Year’s resolutions into action, it’s time for parents of college-bound or college-attending students to fill out the U.S. Department of Education’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. This form is used by nearly every college to determine financial aid packages; many private colleges require an additional form called the CSS Profile. Financial aid offices use these forms to make aid awards to help fill the gap between a family’s ability to pay, or expected family contribution, and the college’s costs of attendance. Awards include need-based aid (grants), merit-based scholarships (based on GPA, test scores, or other criteria), work study opportunities, and loans.  

It is best to fill out the forms as soon as possible by using estimates from last year’s taxes.  Later, after filing federal income tax returns, the applicant can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to update the FAFSA.  Besides potentially making college affordable for many families, there are other good reasons to apply—even for those who think they will not qualify for aid.

For example, some colleges require a FAFSA before awarding merit scholarships. Call the college to determine if this is the case. Also, if a family’s ability to pay for college changes, some schools will not consider applications submitted later, beyond deadlines. And, the FAFSA is required to take advantage of any federal student loans, including those with favorable terms.

To get started:

> Visit the FAFSA website (http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/). It is free; avoid other fee-charging websites.  The site has links to helpful guides and videos.
> Apply for your PIN(s). Students and parents both need FAFSA Personal Identification Numbers, which serve as electronic signatures. Sometime in the future, the Department of Education will roll-out a new user ID program (with password).  You will be alerted when this happens, but get the PIN and use it in the meantime. >Make use of the FAFSA’s Web Worksheet, which provides instruction and alerts you to the types of questions and documents required to complete the real form. There is a paper version of the FAFSA as well.
> Pay attention to looming or rapidly approaching deadlines.  Some schools follow a first come, first serve policy when doling out awards; so file soon.
> Seek FAFSA help as needed by contacting the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). You can also contact the center by email at [email protected].

Ferah Aziz is a college coach with launchphase2. Visit www. launchphase2.com or call 720-340-8111 to learn more about coaching for college bound students, and success coaching for college students. P. Carol Jones is the author of “Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able.” Visit www.towardcollegesuccess.com to read excerpts and to follow her blog.