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You Won’t Believe this! It’s FAFSA Time!

 

What? Isn’t that in January? Not anymore! For those of you with kids in college or about to be in college, this year is the first year of the timing change. Gone are the days of trying to cram in your tax return in January or make a guess as to the numbers in order to complete your FAFSA as early as possible. The Department of Ed is now using your 2015 tax return to calculate the income portion of your (and your child’s) expected family contribution (EFC) for the 2017-2018 school year.

That is right. The new form for the fall of 2017 school year is open. Many schools don’t even want or need it until January but you can be ahead of the game and do some planning to maximize your student financial aid. Here are some things to think about:

  • The income portion is based on the 2015 tax return so there is not much you can do about that but you can plan ahead for the following year.
    • For people who have their own businesses, you can do a lot to control the timing of income and expenses (within the tax code, of course!) so talk to your tax accountant about any moves you may want to make prior to year-end to minimize your taxable income. You are probably doing that anyway regardless of FAFSA, but it becomes doubly important if you are in the college season of parenthood.
  • You can use the FAFSA4caster right now, for a child of any age, to get an idea about what your EFC may be. It is very helpful to run through that now if this is your first time preparing the FAFSA.
    • Be sure to read carefully what is included and excluded in assets. Retirement accounts are not included for FAFSA but may be for the PROFILE form (used by private schools.) Read the guidance and be sure you are clear on what goes where.
  • Assets of both the student and the parent are assessed. There are tables for the parent to determine the assessment rate based on age, family size, etc. but the student assets are likely going to be assessed at up to 50%.
    • This is where timing is important. The assets you report are as of the day that you hit “submit.” That timing is important and it is under your control! (and so few things are at this stage of the game!)
      • Pay your bills, make your retirement plan contributions, make your tax deposits, etc. before you fill out the FAFSA. There is nothing wrong with putting yourself in a good spot before you fill that out.
      • If your child has saved money for a car or a laptop or other items, you may want to consider buying those items before you submit FAFSA.
    • Make sure you save your documentation for the numbers you use. The FAFSA system will pull directly from the tax system so you don’t have to do anything with respect to the income side but do document your whole balance sheet, where you got the numbers and what you are including on what lines of the FAFSA. That will help you in the event you are picked for verification and also will help you when you do this next year.
    • Be aware of your school’s deadlines and try to balance your need to plan and plot with the desire to be “first in line” for that money (if you may qualify for some). While everyone can get the regular loans, the subsidized loans, grants and other free money are not unlimited so earlier is better.
    • There are certified college planners out there so check the website if you want some professional help. (niccp.com) or contact me; I’m certified. This is best done when your child is starting high school but they can give you some tips and tricks even if you are further down the road.
    • Be sure you go to the real FAFSA (fafsa.ed.gov). There are a lot of look-alike services out there that will charge you to submit the FREE application for federal student aid form (FAFSA) so be careful when you are googling!
    • Even if you doubt that you will qualify for any financial aid, FAFSA is frequently the first step for the financial aid office even when getting merit scholarships so read your school’s financial aid/bursar site carefully to know what you need to do. This also is part of the process to get Hope or Zell in Georgia (although you can complete other forms as an alternative.)
    • Private schools may want both FAFSA and the PROFILE form so again, check the website for info so you are clear.

If you have a student in the throes of college apps, best of luck to you and to them. If you have someone coming up in high school, start doing some homework now. It is an adventure, albeit an expensive one, so take a deep breath and start clicking!

To your (and your student’s) financial success!

Tana