by Kalman A. Chany, author, The Princeton Review’s Paying for College, and President, Campus Consultants Inc.
Applying for financial aid can be a confusing and stressful process. Hopefully, this article will help you avoid costly mistakes and reduce your anxiety level as well.
Since every family’s situation is different, it is impossible to provide specific information on how to answer each question on the 2023-2024 FAFSA®, the CSS Profile™, and other aid forms.
There are, however, certain tips that apply to all aid applicants:
Filling Out the Financial Aid Forms
Be sure that you list the student’s full legal name, correct Social Security number, and date of birth on the aid forms — and if required, the correct identifiers for the student’s parent(s) as well. If an individual’s name, date of birth, and Social Security number do not exactly match the information in the Social Security Administration’s database for that person, the processing of the FAFSA form will be delayed.
Be aware that some colleges still use the student’s Social Security number to help retrieve FAFSA data from the federal processor. So if a student Social Security number is requested on any admissions application for those who are seeking financial aid — including the Common Application and/or the Universal College Application — be sure to supply the student’s correct Social Security number so the college can eventually retrieve the student’s processed FAFSA data.
If you are completing a paper form, use the proper writing implement. Some forms must be completed using a black ink ballpoint pen; others may require a #2 pencil. Also, be sure to correctly mark the response areas. For example, you must completely fill in the response ovals on the paper version of the FAFSA instead of using a checkmark or an “x.”
Answer all the required items. Do not write in the margins of any paper forms. Use whole dollar amounts; no cents. For the Profile and the online version of the FAFSA, use a minus sign before your responses instead of parentheses to designate any negative dollar amount.
IMPORTANT: Be sure to list the correct school(s) on the FAFSA and if required, on the CSS Profile — which may be specific to the campus and/or level of study for the same institution (for example, undergraduate, medicine, law, graduate programs, etc.).
For the FAFSA, there are six-character U.S. Department of Education Title IV codes that correspond to each institution, with some, but not all, schools having different codes for different programs of study and/or for different campuses; for the CSS Profile, four-digit College Board codes are used as identifiers for the school. Similar to the six-character FAFSA codes, there may be more than one four-digit College Board code for a particular institution with different codes assigned for the various programs of study and/or campus locations.
Use estimated income figures when completing a form if your tax return(s) cannot be completed in time to meet the earliest school’s filing deadline for a particular form. Then once your 2021 tax returns are completed, revise any estimated PPY income figures on the aid forms using the actual tax return data.
For the FAFSA, PPY(prior-prior year) income tax return information from a processed return may be able to be transferred directly from a secure IRS database onto the FAFSA — either when the online FAFSA is originally filed or when making revisions online to the processed FAFSA data. This online transfer is done using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). Additional details on this tool are available online when you are completing the online FAFSA. There are certain instances when one will not be provided the opportunity to use the IRS DRT. (For example: If a separated individual filed a joint tax return with their estranged spouse.)
WARNING: If one had a qualified rollover of retirement assets during the prior-prior tax year, you need to be careful. Be sure to indicate there was a rollover when asked, and provide the amount of the rollover when asked; otherwise the use of the IRS DRT will likely result in reduced eligibility for aid. Similarly if you filed an amended tax return, the IRS DRT will transfer the data from the original return, not the amended return. In this situation, you should use the IRS DRT and then notify each college’s aid office listed on the FAFSA that you filed an amended return.
Parental Marital Status
The Impact of a Dependent Student’s Parent’s Marital Status on the FAFSA and CSS Profile: Both (biological and adoptive) legal parents’ financial and other information will be required to be reported on the FAFSA if the student is a dependent student, but only if both legal parents are living together. This is true regardless of the student’s legal parents’ marital status or gender.
Custodial Parent Definition
However, if a dependent student’s (biological or adoptive) legal parents are not living together (i.e. the legal parents are divorced, separated, or were never married and reside in separate residences — or there is only one legal parent), then only the financial information of the “custodial parent” should be listed on the 2023-2024 FAFSA.
For the 2023-2024 award year, the custodial parent is the parent with whom the student spent the most time in the 12 months prior to completion of the FAFSA. If the amount of time is exactly equal, then the custodial parent is the one who provided the greater amount of support.
CSS Profile Non-Custodial Parent
These guidelines for the FAFSA are the same for the CSS Profile regarding which parent’s or parent’s information will be required to be reported on the FAFSA and Profile in situations involving legal parents of dependent students who live together (regardless of gender or marital status).
Note that many (but not all) schools that require the Profile will also require a separate aid form to be completed by the “non-custodial parent” when the (biological or adoptive) legal parents are not living together. For these schools, they will most likely require the non-custodial parent to complete their own CSS Profile or, in a few instances, their own non-custodial parent paper aid form.
For purposes of completing the FAFSA or Profile aid forms, the definition of the “custodial parent” has nothing to do with who claims the child as a dependent on a tax return, who is responsible to pay for college, or who was awarded legal custody via a divorce decree or separation agreement.
If there are problems with the non-custodial parent completing their own aid form, each of the applicable schools will have procedures in place to apply for a waiver of this requirement (which is not automatically granted by filing the waiver.)
For a student living with a custodial parent who is married and living with the student’s stepparent: The financial and other information of that stepparent is required to be reported on the FAFSA and the Profile form as if that stepparent were the natural parent.
What to Do Before and After You Submit an Aid Form
Make photocopies of all paper forms prior to mailing and be sure to print out any completed forms that were submitted online. The colleges will frequently ask for further clarification of some of your responses at a later date.
Be sure any required signatures are provided on the forms. For the online version of the FAFSA, a signature can be provided one of two ways:
- by using a U.S. Department of Education FSA ID or
- by printing and signing a signature page — which can be generated prior to or even after submitting the FAFSA data online — and then mailing the signature page with the required signature(s) to the address on the signature page via regular first class mail.
One can apply for an FSA ID number at any time at fsaid.ed.gov, making sure to remember the username, the case-sensitive password, and the answers that you provided for the security questions when you created the FSA ID.
Each individual who is required to sign the form and who wishes to sign the FAFSA electronically using an FSA ID will need to apply for and use their unique FSA ID.
So for a dependent student who must provide parental information on the FAFSA, both the student and at least one parent in the student’s household should create his or her own FSA ID.
KEY POINT: If your earliest school’s FAFSA deadline is looming and you are having difficulty obtaining an FSA ID or using an FSA ID that was created, you should submit the FAFSA form by the deadline and not wait to resolve any issues with the FSA ID.
Even if the FAFSA form is submitted without the necessary signatures, it will still be considered as filed on the date you electronically submit the FAFSA data to the processor.
If you are having trouble with the FSA ID for any individual who is required to sign the FAFSA: You should be sure to mail the paper signature page to the processor after the FAFSA is submitted while still continuing to try to resolve the FSA ID issues. There is no harm in signing the FAFSA with an FSA ID after the FAFSA is submitted once the FSA ID issues are resolved if the signature page you mail to the processor has not yet been processed. The processor will simply accept the earliest method used to provide any missing signature that is required.
Mailing out the signature page will help ensure the FAFSA is processed in a timely manner should there be any extended problems in obtaining a valid FSA ID.
NOTE: While an FSA ID can still be created just before you submit an original FAFSA to the processor, such an FSA ID will be provisional until the identifiers are verified by various government agencies. It normally takes 3-5 days before this validation occurs. In the meantime, the provisional FSA ID can only be used to sign an original FAFSA or to transfer tax return information via the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.
To perform any other tasks that require an FSA ID — for example, revising the FAFSA or applying for a federal education loan — such an FSA ID for an individual must have successfully gone through the validation process.
Financial Aid Deadlines
File the FAFSA on or after October 1 — but no later than your earliest school’s and/or your state agencies’ FAFSA deadline. If at least one of the colleges under consideration requires the Profile, you should file the Profile by the earliest college’s Profile deadline, which may be different than its FAFSA deadline.
NOTE: If you are planning on filing the FAFSA online the day it is due for your earliest FAFSA deadline, keep in mind that the federal processor now uses Eastern Time to date stamp the time the form is submitted. If you are planning on filing the Profile on the date it is due for your earliest school that requires the Profile, be aware that the College Board’s processor continues to use Eastern Time to determine the time the form was submitted.
KEY POINTS: Consult each college’s financial aid materials for the proper deadline information. Do not rely on the deadlines listed as part of the Profile application or on the information printed in the popular admissions/financial aid guides sold by booksellers. Such deadline information is often incorrect.
You should also be aware that the content on some colleges’ websites is frequently outdated. Be sure to check that the information refers to deadlines and requirements for the academic year you are seeking aid. And be sure to periodically re-visit the schools’ aid offices’ websites, as updated information may be posted.
While most colleges and other post-secondary schools set a priority filing deadline for financial aid, there are still some schools that award financial aid funds on a first-come-first-served basis. If you are applying to any of such schools, then you should file the FAFSA as soon as possible.
In addition, you will also want to be aware of timing issues involving state aid awarded by your state of residence.
While the majority of states set a priority filing deadline, there are 16 states that award funds from some or all of their state aid programs on a funds-available basis until such funds are exhausted. If you are a resident of one of these states, then it would be best to file the FAFSA as soon as possible. This is true even if your schools under consideration have later deadlines. The only exceptions would be:
- you are certain you will not qualify for any such state aid programs from your home state because of your finances
- because such aid from your state cannot be taken across state lines and the student is not interested in any schools in your state.
To determine such information about how your home state awards its own state aid funds, consult the website of the higher education agency in your state.
The FAFSA website also provides information about timing issues/deadlines for each state’s own aid programs, as does a chart on the first page of the paper FAFSA pdf file.
If you are filing a paper version of the FAFSA, send the signed, completed form to the federal processor via Priority Mail Express — and be sure to track its delivery status. You need to have proof of mailing and delivery, in case there are delays or computer glitches at the processor.
Since the processor is in a remote location, it will probably take at least two days with Priority Mail Express (The U.S. Postal Service’s next-day to 2-day delivery service with a money-back guarantee) for your FAFSA to reach the processor.
With Priority Mail Express, you can track delivery via phone or online at www.usps.com. Because the form must be sent to a Post Office Box number, you will not be able to use a private delivery service such as FedEx or UPS; you will need to mail the paper FAFSA to the processor using the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).
After you file the FAFSA, a Student Aid Report (SAR) will be generated once your FAFSA is processed. If you submitted the paper PDF version of the FAFSA, compare the responses on the SAR with your photocopy of the FAFSA to make sure that your data was correctly inputted by the federal FAFSA processor and that the results are being sent to the proper schools and programs.
NOTE: After the FAFSA is processed, an online version of the SAR will be available via www.fafsa.ed.gov using the student’s FSA ID number (provided your pop-up blockers are disabled and the student’s FSA ID has been validated). This online version of the SAR can be accessed even if a paper version of the FAFSA was mailed to the processor.
The online version of the SAR will list up to 10 schools. A paper version of the SAR will be mailed to you if you did not list an email address when you filed the FAFSA (either online or through the mail via the paper PDF version).
The paper SAR you receive in the mail will only list up to four schools. However the FAFSA data will still be made available (if applicable) to the fifth up to the tenth schools that were listed when the online version of FAFSA was submitted — even though those additional schools (the 5th through 10th schools, if applicable) will not appear on the paper version of the SAR that you receive in the mail.
Hopefully this article has helped you get a better understanding of the financial aid process applicable for those seeking assistance in the 2023-2024 award year. However, be aware that because of major changes affecting the financial aid landscape that may become effective as early as the 2024-2025 academic year, the information in this article may no longer be applicable once such changes become effective.
Copyright 2022 by Campus Consultants Inc.
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