A+ Advice for Parents

Q: Our first child is a senior applying to college. We need all the aid we can get. The admissions officer at one university we visited advised of changes to the FAFSA. What are they?

A: FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. As a minimum, this federal form is required from undergrad and graduate students who seek grants, student loans and work-study jobs in a given academic year.

Along with other possible forms, the FAFSA helps determine the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), "a key figure colleges and others use to determine a student's aid eligibility," says Kal Chany, the president of Campus Consultants Inc., a New York City-based firm that helps families maximize financial aid. FAFSA requires student data, and if applicable, information from custodial parents or stepparents of a dependent student.

There are two big changes. One is the earlier start to the FAFSA filing period. It began Oct. 1 for fall 2017-spring 2018 aid. In previous years, FAFSA filing began Jan. 1.

The second change is that "prior-prior year" (PPY) income from 2015 will be reported on the 2017-2018 FAFSA. In the past, prior year income was used. "But," says Chany, "all other data will be as of the date your FAFSA is filed." This includes -- but isn't limited to -- asset values, household size and the dependency status of the student.

While the process is complicated, make the effort. "Assume your child is eligible. Don't rule out any college because you think it's too expensive. The higher the cost, the more aid you may receive," says Chany, who is the co-author of "Paying for College Without Going Broke" (Princeton Review, 2015). He offers these tips:

Decide how your family is going to file. You can file online, which is preferred; you can fill out paper forms; or you can print out a downloadable PDF. Go to fafsa.ed.gov to explore your options. Call 1-800-4-FED-AID to request a paper copy, if desired.

Know your deadlines. Each college and state grant agency calls the shots. Make a chart to track the various aid forms and deadlines for each college. Make sure to include your home state's grant deadlines and requirements -- they may be earlier than the colleges' deadlines.

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, the early bird doesn't necessarily get the worm -- just make sure you file in the appropriate time frame," urges Chany.

Figure your EFC before applying. Use worksheets in financial aid guidebooks or online to calculate what the college will estimate you can afford to pay.

"Check for the most up-to-date information, as formulas change every year," Chany cautions.

Maximize your student's eligibility. Consider making appropriate adjustments to your assets, debts and retirement provisions before you apply.

Decide when to file. "Ten states award grant assistance for residents on a first-come, first-served basis. A small number of schools award aid that way, too. If either apply, file the FAFSA and other required documents ASAP," advises Chany. "Otherwise, file by the earliest school's priority filing deadline (or your home state's priority deadline, if earlier) for the particular form involved."

Don't forget to proofread. The forms are complex. "You'll get rewarded by paying attention to detail," says Chany. "Parents often make costly mistakes that can cost thousands of dollars."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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