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Lessening the confusion over college financial aid forms

Bennington College
Bennington College
Cathy McMeekan

January is the time for college bound high school seniors and their parents to begin filling out their financial aid paperwork. The most common form is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the “FAFSA” form. This form is produced by the federal government and all colleges and universities that use government funds as part of their financial aid packages require this form to be filled out for consideration for need-based aid.

What does “need-based aid” mean? The FAFSA provides colleges with the family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) towards education. With this number the colleges then figure out based on the cost of attendance the family’s financial need. Simply put, financial need is the gap between the cost of the college and how much the family can pay (EFC).

However the FAFSA isn’t the only form that can be required by colleges for those students requesting financial aid. Some colleges will have their own institutional forms that are required in addition to the FAFSA. The most common other form required by colleges is The College Board’s CSS Profile. The FAFSA is free for students to fill out and send but the CSS Profile charges by the number of colleges you select to receive the form.

So why do you have to fill out so many forms, isn’t the FAFSA enough? Even though the FAFSA seems complicated for those filling it out for the first time, it actually uses far less data to tease out the real financial situation of a family. As a result colleges may use additional forms so they can find out more information about the true state of a family’s finances. If a family has an unusual financial circumstance that is not reflected on any form they fill out, they should write a letter to the college’s financial aid office and provide accompanying documentation to see if it could be considered in the financial aid awarding process.

The CSS Profile is used by over 250 colleges and universities to help them gather more data than the FAFSA provides so they can better use their financial resources to reach their institution goals. It’s not just about trying to give out aid to the families who really need it (although that is a part of it) but can often be tied to financial aid leveraging strategies employed by the colleges.

How does the CSS Profile differ from the FAFSA? First off, it doesn’t matter what college you are applying to for the FAFSA, you send it to all the colleges you applied to if you want to be considered for need-based financial aid. The CSS Profile is only required by 250-plus colleges, so depending on your college list you may not use this form or only need to send it to a few colleges. When filling out the CSS Profile the student selects those colleges to which he is applying that require the Profile and the resulting form is customized for the student. Each college using the Profile has selected the questions that they want a family to answer, so by selecting a student’s individual college choices the form created asks only those questions that those specifically listed colleges require. In essence each student’s Profile is as unique as their college list.

According to the CSS Profile website, these are the documents you will need before you can complete the Profile:

· ƒ 2013 federal income tax return(s), if completed

· ƒ 2012 federal income tax return(s)

· ƒ W-2 forms and other records of money earned in 2013

· ƒ Records of untaxed income and benefits for 2012 and 2013

· ƒ Current bank statements

· ƒ Current mortgage information

· ƒ Records of savings, stocks, bonds, trusts, and other investments

· ƒ Your noncustodial parent's email address, if applicable.

It should be noted that if your parents are divorced, some colleges require information from the non-custodial parent. However be assured that neither parent will see the other parent’s information that they fill out for the CSS Profile.

The bottom line when applying for financial aid for any college is to check to make sure that you know what forms a college requires and the deadlines for submitting the forms. There is no standard filing deadline for financial aid forms. For maximum consideration for financial aid meeting the deadlines is imperative as there is always more money in the pool at the beginning of the process than at the end. Those who file all forms by the deadlines will receive priority consideration. DEADLINES MATTER!