With the high cost of college a key issue for candidates in the upcoming presidential election, students everywhere — both enrolled or entering college for the first time — are looking for an edge in mitigating costs.
For those scholars, the answer often lies in the timely completion and submission of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
The FAFSA, known to many past students as a somewhat lengthy and cumbersome crucible to navigate, has entered the 21st century as a more user-friendly document which can be completed online in about 30 to 60 minutes, according to many local college officials.
Elizabeth Petri, the director of financial aid at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Mass., said that while the season of local public FAFSA workshops recently ended, prospective students and parents can always call college financial aid offices — and should apply as soon as possible.
"Applying early is the key to receiving the best financial aid package available from a college," Petri said. "At MCLA, approximately 93 percent of degree-seeking undergraduate students apply for financial aid through the FAFSA. We encourage all student to complete [it]."
While the federal deadline to apply for aid during the 2016-17 school year is June 30, 2017, states and colleges often allocate awards using their own deadline. The Massachusetts deadline is on May 1 of this year, while Vermont suggests "as soon as possible after Jan. 1, 2016."
The FAFSA, when completed online at fafsa.gov, is free. By submitting it, students become eligible for access to grants, loans and work-study funds from the federal government.
Most colleges nationwide use FAFSA-submitted data as the basis for awarding their own school-funded or state-furnished financial aid.
Once in school, students seeking financial aid must fill out the FAFSA annually, due to the potential for changes in their financial situation. Each college calculates separate awards for its students. If students or their families have already filed their yearly tax information, much of that information can be automatically retrieved during the online FAFSA filing and renewal processes.
Recently, the new online version of the FAFSA has added skip logic response technology, meaning it is easier to navigate as students only need to address form entries that apply to them.
Information that families should be prepared to provide include W-2 forms; federal tax returns (or the best estimate of income if the state deadline passes before federal taxes are filed); the Social Security numbers of students and parents; student's driver's license or state ID; current bank statements and financial records, including annual stock, bond and investment statements.
In addition, non-taxable income records should also be presented, such as child support, tax-deferred pensions, and workers' compensation.
Connect with advisers
While assembling that list may sound a bit intimidating, Lucy Robinson, financial aid counselor at the Community College of Vermont's Bennington campus, said that applying for financial aid doesn't have to be scary or hard, nor does it have to be done alone. She added that connecting with college advisers and counselors is a must.
"Often at CCV, our students graduate with little or no student loan debt," Robinson said. "Income-eligible Vermonters have most direct costs covered by grants and others utilize payment plans, employer funding, and scholarships. Financial aid counselors are available to help with the FAFSA throughout the year, for free."
Avoid these mistakes
Along with local advisers ready and willing to help all prospective and current students, the U.S. Department of Education also offers helpful hints of things to avoid when considering financial aid, or directly applying for it.
Nicole Callahan, a new media analyst at the Department of Education's Office of Federal Student Aid, listed seven common errors students make with the online FAFSA:
• Not completing the FAFSA at all, due to apathy.
• Not being prepared, or using skip logic (mentioned above).
• Not reading carefully, or rushing through items.
• In-putting incorrect information.
• Not reporting all parent information.
• Not using the IRS data retrieval tool (mentioned above).
• Not electronically signing the FAFSA with their assigned PIN.
In light of the above potential issues, MCLA's Elizabeth Petri emphasized that help is available locally at all times.
"The FAFSA has been simplified over the years to make it easier for students and parents to complete," she said. "[They] are encouraged to call if they have questions or problems completing the FAFSA or the financial aid process."
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist.