Opinion Schools

College Bound: What Happens Every October?

Courtesy of Adrienne Maslin

We-Ha.com will be publishing a series of essays/blogs/reflections on the issue of going to college – primarily a set of thoughts and musings, along with some practical advice, intended to support students and parents as they embark on this journey. While many of our readers are experts in this topic, many others are less knowledgeable and have little outside support. We hope this is helpful to all readers as they go through the various stages of getting into and getting something out of college.

By Adrienne Leinwand Maslin

What happens every October? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not Indigenous Peoples Day.

Well, yes, Indigenous Peoples Day does come in October but it’s not what I have in mind. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, National Audiology Awareness Month, and ADHD Awareness Month. But I’m not thinking of any of those, either. It’s LGBTQ+ awareness month. But that’s not the one I’m concerned about at the moment. Nor am I thinking of Adopt a Shelter Dog month. Or National Cryptocurrency month. (Did you even know there was such a thing?)

No, it is something far scarier. When we think about this event our stomachs cramp, our hearts go thumpity thump thump – ever faster and ever louder – and we go running and screaming as if the headless horseman was coming up behind us! No, it’s not Halloween! It’s the FAFSA!!

The FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, becomes available on Oct. 1 of each calendar year and students and parents can begin filling it out to submit to the federal government for the following academic year. The due date for the FAFSA is June 30 so you have a long, long time to take care of it, but it’s always good to file the FAFSA as early as possible. More on that later.

The first thing to understand about the FAFSA is that it is free. Yes, that seems obvious. However, there are some organizations that offer to help you with the FAFSA for a fee. This is not necessary. The FAFSA, while it can appear terrifying, can typically be completed without having to pay for assistance and there are many free sources of help available to you. The FAFSA form can be located at https://studentaid.gov. This website, created by the United States Department of Education, has excellent information about filling out the FAFSA.

Another excellent source of help is The College Board at https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-college/financial-aid-basics/fafsa/how-to-complete-the-fafsa.

Completing the FAFSA is not as daunting as it used to be; a number of years ago the federal government made some changes that made completion of the form (slightly) easier. So, what do you need to have at the ready? Here’s a list from the FAFSA website: https://studentaid.gov/apply-for-aid/fafsa/filling-out#gathering-the-documents-needed-to-apply:

  • Your Social Security number (it’s important that you enter it correctly on the FAFSA form!);
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers if you are a dependent student;
  • Your driver’s license number if you have one;
  • Your Alien Registration number if you are not a U.S. citizen;
  • Federal tax information, tax documents, or tax returns, including IRS W-2 information, for you (and your spouse, if you are married), and for your parents if you are a dependent student:
    • IRS Form1040
    • Foreign tax return or IRS Form 1040-NR
    • Tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or Palau;
  • Records of your untaxed income, such as child support received, interest income, and veterans non-education benefits, for you, and for your parents if you are a dependent student;
  • Information on cash; savings and checking account balances; investments, including stocks and bonds and real estate (but not including the home in which you live); and business and farm assets for you and for your parents if you are a dependent student.

This same web page also provides information on a variety of other important topics which include how to get started with the FAFSA; choosing an online, PDF, or hard copy version of the FAFSA form; using the Federal School Code Search in order to identify those colleges you wish to receive your information; dependency status; and, of great benefit to most filers, the Internal Revenue Service’s Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). The DRT allows FAFSA filers to transfer information from their tax returns directly into the FAFSA form. Perhaps most importantly, the above website provides information on how to get help!

Everyone should file a FAFSA, and everyone should file the FAFSA early. Do not wait until June 30. Why? Here are some reasons to fill out a FAFSA:

  1. Many families assume they will not qualify for aid. However, a very smart, wise, and well-positioned former boss told me to “never assume.” And he was right. Many families who don’t think they qualify actually end up receiving some financial aid. There are so many variables involved: Do you have other children in college? Do you care for elderly parents? Do you have a dependent with disabilities? The federal government will take all of these and more into consideration.
  2. The FAFSA is required to access non-need-based parent and student loans. These loans generally have more favorable interest rates than private loans. And the terms of repayment are typically better as well.
  3. You never know when your financial situation might change. Job loss, illness, deaths. All of these can and do occur. If your FAFSA is on file you will be better prepared to handle a sudden change.
  4. Some colleges base merit aid on the FAFSA. Without completing a FAFSA, merit aid may not be forthcoming.

Here are some reasons to file the FAFSA early:

  1. Colleges run out of money. Colleges do not have an unlimited supply of federal dollars to put towards financial aid. Some colleges, if they run out of federal dollars, will try to cobble together a financial aid award for students who have filed their FAFSAs late. But that is not always the case so in order to be sure aid is available should you qualify, it is best to file the FAFSA early.
  2. If you file early, you will most likely learn of your financial aid award when you learnof your admissions decision. This will help you compare colleges and awards and make it easier to determine which college to attend.

I hope what I’ve told you about the FAFSA has helped to reduce the anxiety that some of you may feel. It can be terrifying, I know. But, you must admit, it’s not as scary as . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .well . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .THIS!

Courtesy of Adrienne Maslin

Adrienne Leinwand Maslin recently retired from a 45-year career in higher education administration. She has worked at public and private institutions, urban and rural, large and small, and two-year and four-year, and is Dean Emerita at Middlesex Community College. She has held positions in admissions, affirmative action, president’s office, human resources, academic affairs, and student affairs. Maslin has a BA from the University of Vermont, an MEd from Boston University, and a PhD from the University of Oregon. She is presently creating a TV/web-based series on life skills and social issues for 9-12 year olds believing that the more familiar youngsters are with important social issues the easier their transition to college and adulthood will be. Information about this series as well as contact information can be found at www.shesroxanne.com.

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