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By Joanna Nesbit
October 12, 2021
A group of students walking on FAFSA letters.
Jade Schulz for Money

Every year, community forums on Facebook and Reddit are flooded with exasperated parents wondering how to answer questions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Some are fairly straightforward, such as “can my student qualify as independent if we’re not paying for college?” (Answer: No.)

But many other questions revolve around an unusual domestic or financial situation, especially this year, when many families are dealing with reporting income from unemployment benefits.

If you're one of those exasperated parents, you may be able to find your answer in the government's thorough guide on the FAFSA website.

“The online experience is designed to answer a ton of questions built in with chat and email support,” says Brian Walsh, senior manager of financial planning at the private student loan company SoFi. This year’s form offers more help throughout, particularly with tax questions, and the FAFSA website also offers a FAQ page for some more general scenarios.

But let’s say you’ve exhausted the online resources and you’re tearing your hair out over unanswered questions. Or, alternatively, you’re feeling intimidated and don’t even know how to get started. Here’s what to know about finding free, reliable help:

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Start with your high school

If your high school offers a college access program, that’s a great place to begin, says MorraLee Keller, director of technical assistance at National College Attainment Network. Many high schools have access programs such as GEAR UP or Upward Bound, and they usually have a staffer who’s an expert on the FAFSA (or they may bring in a local financial aid expert). Even if your high school doesn’t have a formal college access program, the guidance department may be offering FAFSA completion events this month with financial aid experts on hand to answer families’ questions.

Check out your state’s virtual resources

If your high school doesn’t have scheduled events, many states host virtual FAFSA workshops.

“Some tend to be more of a ‘here’s how to fill it out’ event,” Keller says. Others focus on FAFSA completion and filing with targeted help. “Some workshops may put families into their own Zoom rooms for confidentiality purposes, and an advisor will go in and guide the family through completing the FAFSA,” Keller says.

State workshops can be found a couple ways.

  • NCAN runs a website called Form Your Future that includes searchable state-specific resources (at the bottom of the page). As an example, California’s Student Aid Commission lists alphabetically all the high schools and colleges holding FAFSA/CADAA workshops over the next few months. (The CADAA is California’s alternative financial aid form for students with undocumented status.) Washington state’s 12th Year Campaign offers virtual events on FAFSA filing through Dec. 1.
  • Not all states list their events on Form Your Future. The other way to find state resources is to check your state’s higher education website or Google your state’s name and “FAFSA completion event,” Keller suggests. In Ohio, where she’s located, the statewide FAFSA resource is called FAFSA Help OH, run by the Ohio Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. The virtual and in-person FAFSA events, which are updating daily, are hosted by area colleges and high schools.

Call a college financial aid office

If your questions feel too specific or complex for a FAFSA event, call the financial aid office of a college your student plans to apply to. In fact, talk to a couple different colleges to confirm the answer, Keller recommends.

College financial aid officers are FAFSA experts, and they’re ready to help prospective families. Your student doesn’t have to be accepted already.

“They’re also going to have additional information related to school-specific insights,” Walsh says. If the person answering the phone is a work-study student, ask to be connected to a financial aid officer.

Let’s say you’re wondering how to document lost income on the FAFSA, or you have an unusual domestic situation you don’t know how to report. If it’s a situation that wasn’t reflected on your 2020 tax return, then it might be a “special circumstance” question that doesn’t get resolved through the FAFSA at all. Here’s why: For the 2022-23 school year, the FAFSA requires the tax information from your 2020 income tax return. Even if your situation has changed, that tax return is the one required for the 2022-23 FAFSA. After it’s filed, you can report the change to the college itself as an “appeal” or “change in circumstance.” All institutions have a process for reporting such changes.

The financial aid officer will be able to tell you if your question can be resolved on the FAFSA or if you need to submit updated information directly to the college after it has received your financial aid form.

Where not to turn for free help

Stay away from the websites that say they can help you fill out the FAFSA faster and better, Keller says. Generally, these websites’ software systems are designed to transfer your family’s financial information from their site into the FAFSA, but the software doesn’t accommodate signing the FAFSA or amending it with updates.

Signatures can only be secured directly through the official government website, Keller says. The FAFSA website is also the only place to add a new college or print your Student Aid Report. That’s why it’s best to avoid third-party sites.

“Start on fafsa.gov, stay there, use your FSA ID, and get advice from a live, informed person,” Keller says.

You also might wonder if it’s worth paying for FAFSA completion help from a tax preparer, certified financial planner or private college counselor who offers the service. That could be helpful, particularly for families with complex tax situations. Just do some due diligence before you fork over the money. Many tax accountants and financial planners don’t have a background in understanding the FAFSA.

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