Should you bother to fill out the FAFSA?

Lee Shulman Bierer

ECU student Luke Holloman works on his laptop in a study booth on the second floor of Joyner Library. Cliff Hollis, ECU News Services

Should you fill out the FAFSA? In a word, yes.

Many middle-class families have convinced themselves that filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, isn’t worth the effort because they have heard that only students from families earning less than about $50,000 a year get federal grants.

But some of the most generous private colleges award need-based aid to students whose families earn more than $200,000 a year. That means that a great number of families find themselves on the bubble, somewhere in the middle zone, wondering if they should invest the time.

The FAFSA isn’t that daunting. Honestly, gathering your materials is likely to take more time than filling out the form. But the payoff, in financial aid rewards, could make a significant difference over the next four years.

Here are a few reasons that even the wealthiest families should fill out the FAFSA:

  1. Need is a relative concept: Even affluent families can be considered “needy” when college costs $70,000 a year. So some colleges, state agencies and scholarship foundations require the FAFSA to award scholarships and grants to middle- and upper-middle-class students attending expensive schools.
  2. Other aid opportunities: Some financial aid programs require a FAFSA even though they award aid without regard to family income. Some colleges also use FAFSA information as a deciding factor for students who are on the borderline for merit scholarships.

The FAFSA also provides a few perks:

  • for being older – depending on the oldest parent’s age, a certain amount of money is excluded from consideration.
  • for having more dependent children – the EFC (Expected Family Contribution) is exactly what it says – the expected contribution from the family; whether there is one child in college or two or three. So families with multiple children in college simultaneously will benefit.

Tips for getting started on the FAFSA:

  • Head to the right site, fafsa.ed.gov. There are plenty of dotcom impostors. Don’t be duped by advertisements that offer to complete your FAFSA for you for a fee or guarantee scholarships.
  • Get going soon. The official FAFSA form was made available on Oct. 1. Since funds are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis, even those families who don’t anticipate receiving aid are encouraged to complete the forms as early as possible.
  • Get your PIN. Even if you’re not ready to complete the entire FAFSA form, get your PIN and start collecting the necessary paperwork.
  • Check your kids’ accounts. Be aware that the assessment on a child’s assets is 20 percent, whereas it is just 5.64 percent on parental assets. Be cautious about monies in your child’s name.
  • Check your bank accounts. The FAFSA doesn’t ask about any debts you have or unpaid bills, but it does want to know how much money you have in your savings and checking accounts. Less money in your accounts could mean more aid.
  • Tell the truth. Know that some states and some colleges and universities provide more aid to families with lesser levels of education. What that means is if you were one course shy of a bachelor’s degree, the government considers you to be a high school graduate, not a college graduate. Less education could mean more money.
  • Utilize the FAFSA resources. There are some wonderful tutorials, videos, handouts, articles, etc., all designed to simplify the process. The website is user-friendly and very accessible.

 

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: lee@collegeadmissionsstrategies.com; www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com