January 1 marks the beginning of a new year and a new hope, but it also can make parents nervous as it marks the opening day of the Free Application for Financial  Student Aid (FAFSA) for students enrolling in or returning to college in the fall.   Almost all colleges use the FAFSA to help determine a student’s financial aid award; many private colleges require an additional form called the CSS Profile.  Some schools require yet another form just in case parents have any remaining time, patience, or sanity.

The forms can be intimidating and some parents opt not to file them—a choice parents may regret later.   According to Jay Murray of Solutions for Tuition, all applicants (and parents) should do the following:

1. Plan on filing. File the forms, even if you think you won’t qualify for aid. Financial aid awards fall within two main categories:  need-based awards or merit based awards dependent on specific criteria such as GPA or activities. Every year thousands of parents miss out on free college money in the form of grants and scholarships because they incorrectly assumed they would not qualify for an award.  Many colleges require the forms before offering merit awards, grants, or scholarships. The FAFSA form is required for federal loans; some colleges will not allow a family to file in subsequent years if they do not file the financial aid forms in the freshman year.

2. Take action if applicable. Reducing income and spending assets will often increase need-based awards. It may make sense to accelerate a planned expenditure such as a new roof, provided it’s sensible from a cash flow perspective. Know that other complex planning opportunities may exist.

3. File early and file often.  Many financial aid programs have limited funds; applying early may increase award success as well as the size of the award.   Students and parents must reapply every year to be considered for aid for the following year.  Families should file the forms using estimates. Later, after filing federal income tax returns, the applicant can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to update the FAFSA form.  A parent may add colleges to the forms after the initial filing, but this is the only change that may be made to the CSS Profile.  Only a college may change the data on the profile once it has been filed.

4. Don’t make mistakes.  When a parent errs in completing the form, he or she can “lose their place in line” and be forced to correct and re-file the form, risking a reduction in award. For many, it is wise to consult with a CPA or college financial planner well versed in the nuances of these forms.

Completion of the FAFSA and CSS forms is a required step to capture every dollar to which a family is entitled. This daunting task can pay off in grants and scholarships. Parents who fail to plan or complete the forms may leave money on the table.

For more information, contact Jay Murray of Solutions for Tuition at 720-529-0707, or visit www.solutionsfortuition.com   

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.