The latest Free Application for Federal Student Aid has been available online since Oct 1, kicking off a new financial aid timeline for students and their families. You can now start applying for college aid in the fall, as opposed to after Jan. 1 of next year, and also use older income-tax information on the form, making the process simpler.
Money has published dozens of stories about how and when to apply for financial aid. But try as we might, we can't anticipate every question. That's why we recently asked to hear from readers who are currently going through the process. Here are some of the questions they sent in via email and social media.
Q. I retired in 2016. Should I complete the application now using the higher income of 2015 or wait until I receive my 2016 tax forms when I'll have less income?
A. Some variation of this question—what if my family's income now is very different than it was in 2015?—is the most common query we've gotten so far. The answer is, if your child is planning to attend college during the 2017-18 school year, you don't have any choice: You'll have to complete the FAFSA using your 2015 income. However, if there's been a significant change in your financial situation and your 2015 return doesn't reflect what you currently earn, you'll also need to contact the financial aid offices of the colleges your student plans to apply to (or currently attends).
This process, known among financial aid officers as a "professional judgement" review isn't any different than it was in previous years. Financial aid officers have the power to adjust certain parts of a student's financial aid application to make it more representative of families' current finances, says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators. If you've had a loss of employment, unexpected bills, divorce or death in the family, you might qualify for an adjusted financial aid application. Colleges handle these situations on a case-by-case basis, but it's common that they'll ask for some kind of documentation of the change in your finances, Draeger says. So be prepared to provide evidence to back up any claims of higher expenses or lower earnings.
Q. Does the student need to already have applied to a college before the FAFSA information is sent to that college?
A. No, you can fill out the FAFSA and have it sent to any college your student is interested in, whether he or she ends up applying or not. That said, colleges won't prepare an aid package for you until the student has applied and been admitted. So it's perfectly fine (and even recommended) to submit your FAFSA early—just don't expect a financial aid package right away.
Q. In February 2016 we filed the FAFSA for our child, using 2015 tax return data. Since the beginning date for filing has been moved up, can I use the same 2015 tax data again? If so, is there a way to access the previous FAFSA to see what values we used in the listing of assets?
A. Yes, you'll use your 2015 tax return information again this year, and the IRS Data Retrieval tool can automatically fill in those parts of the FAFSA. If you want to review last year's FAFSA and Student Aid Report, you can find it in your student's account at fsaid.ed.gov. However, the FAFSA's questions about your cash and assets (specifically questions 41, 42, and 43 on the student section and 90, 91, and 92 on the parent section) refer to your current balances—that is, how much you have in those accounts on the day you fill out the form—so they are unlikely to be identical to the information you supplied last year.
Q. Who is the owner of a 529 or educational savings account for FAFSA purposes? Is it considered the parent's asset or the student's?
A. A 529 account is considered the parent's asset if the student is still a dependent. (If your student is living with you, he or she likely qualifies as a dependent. You can read more about the rules here.) Coverdell savings accounts follow the same rules as 529 accounts. But if you established an UGMA or UTMA account for your child, that's counted as belonging to the student. You can read more about different types of accounts on page 9 of the FAFSA instructions.
Bonus answer: If you do have an UGMA or UTMA, moving those funds into a 529 account might save you money. That's because the government expects students to contribute a higher percentage of their assets toward college than it does parents, as financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz has previously told Money.
Q. Is there a fee for filing FAFSA?
A. No! The form is free to download and free to submit online or via mail to the Department of Education. Unfortunately there are a lot of shady websites that try to charge for FAFSA help, but they’re legally not committing fraud unless they don’t do whatever they advertised they would. In other words, if they promised to mail in your FAFSA for you if you paid them $78, and they did indeed mail your form, there's not much you can do to get the money back. You should be able to find everything you need on the official website: https://fafsa.ed.gov/. You can also get free help directly from the Federal Student Aid office on the phone, via live chat, or by email.
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Q. Can all the schools we list on the FAFSA see where else we're sending results to?
A. Not anymore. In the past, colleges could see the other schools you listed, and many colleges knew that students were more likely to enroll in a school they listed first or second on their FAFSA. Because of concerns that colleges were using that information, without students' knowledge, to make admissions decisions, the Department of Education changed the rules and now colleges will not see the other schools you list. However, state grant agencies can still see your list, so it's best to list the public colleges in your state first if you want state aid.
Q. My granddaughter needs help filling out FAFSA forms. Is there a place she can go to get hands-on help?
A. A lot of community organizations and schools host financial aid nights, so start by checking with your granddaughter's high school guidance office. In previous years, these were usually held in January or early February, but with the new FAFSA timeline, many have moved up to October or November this year. You can also research programs and resources in your state through the National College Access Network's member directory.