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Getting Financial Aid for College

The importance of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, with your college-bound student – and why your role matters.

It's no secret: College is expensive. While preparing for these costs can begin early with savings plans, many students can still benefit from federal loans, scholarships and other aid money.

In order to qualify for college aid, it's imperative for high school seniors to fill out the United States government's Free Application for Federal Student Aid – better known as FAFSA.

What is FAFSA?

This application uses your household financial information to determine the amount of money and kind of aid for which your dependent child qualifies. FAFSA information applies to federal student loans, money lent by the government that will have to be repaid, as well as grants and scholarships that may come from the college your student plans to attend – which is money that doesn't need to be repaid.

If you're the parent of a college-bound student, your role is vital in getting your student's FAFSA completed, since the application requires your financial information.

When there's a lack of parental involvement in this area, it can cause a "roadblock" for students, says Enid Johnson, a guidance counselor at Cass Technical High School in Detroit.

Filling out FAFSA

In order to fill out FAFSA with your child, just about all you need is your most recent tax return information, says Gabriela Garfield, interim senior director of student financial aid at Wayne State University in Detroit.

"The parent is responsible for completing the FAFSA with his or her child," Garfield says, noting this is because there is a lot of sensitive personal information involved, such as Social Security numbers.

You can fill out FAFSA online, or you can mail it by printing out the PDF on the FAFSA website and filling it in by hand. You can also call 800-4-FED-AID (433-3243) or 319-337-5665 to request a paper version.

Garfield adds that when you go to the FAFSA website to begin filling out your new form online, you'll be shown a list of items you'll need to complete it.

Since tax returns are a big necessity in filling out FAFSA, Garfield recommends to "try to get your tax return completed in January or February." This will give students an ample amount of time to meet government, state and college filing deadlines. For many colleges, the deadlines to consider a student's eligibility for institutional aid is March 1, Garfield adds (March 31 at WSU), so it's key to fill out FAFSA early to be considered for the most aid.

If you file your taxes electronically, in about three weeks, families can use the Internal Revenue Service's data retrieval tool, which automatically transfers your information from the IRS to your FAFSA form, Garfield says. You also can use this tool if you filed via mail, but it will take roughly eight weeks to get the info, FAFSA's website notes.

But "don't delay filing a FAFSA because your taxes aren't completed," she adds. You can get started without the returns by filling it out with estimated financial aid information and retuning to update it once you have your tax returns, Garfield notes, stressing the importance of meeting deadlines. Students should fill out FAFSA regardless of if they've heard back from the colleges to which they applied. They can select the FAFSA to be sent to the colleges before they hear back, and even before they apply, Garfield notes. Families can even start filling out FAFSA, save it and come back to it later if necessary.

Garfield says families sometimes don't think they're going to qualify for financial aid and won't fill it out – but they're also "not prepared for the total cost" of college.

"It's always good to file the FAFSA upfront, whether or not you believe you're going to qualify," she says.

Where to get help

If you're having trouble filling out your FAFSA or need a helping hand, free resources are available.

The FAFSA website has answers to frequently asked questions. While you're filling out FAFSA, you'll also see the "help and hints" box on the right side of the page. This website also gives you the ability to live chat with customer service by clicking the "help" icon. You can call 1-800-4FEDAID (433-3243) or 319-337-5665 for help via phone.

Check your child's high school. You can check with your child's high school to see if it offers assistance or resources. Some schools have specific days for parents to come in and get help. If your child attends Detroit Public Schools, you can check to see when the school's FAFSA Night event is scheduled.

Attend Michigan College Goal Sunday. From 2 to 4 p.m. Feb. 9, 2014, free FAFSA help is available through this national event. Jennifer Wallace, outreach manager at Michigan Education Trust and known to many as the "TIP Lady," will be at the Urban League of Detroit & Southeastern Michigan, 15770 James Couzens Freeway, Detroit. Other locations include Center for Advanced Technologies at Focus: HOPE, 1400 Oakman Blvd., Detroit – and Allen Academy, 8666 Quincy, Detroit. Visit the Michigan College Goal Sunday website to find other Detroit-area spots and to get a checklist of what you'll need to bring to the event.

Head to Wayne State University. WSU in Detroit offers a free event called FAFSA Fridays, where anybody can get counseling on FAFSA. Garfield says FAFSA Fridays begin the second week of January and run through the end of March. Walk-ins are welcome. You'll want to bring your completed tax returns as well as your PIN from pin.ed.gov, which is a number you'll use to electronically sign the FAFSA. Held at the WSU Welcome Center, 42 W. Warren Ave., Detroit. Call the WSU financial aid office at 313-577-3378 for more information.

Call or visit the college. The financial aid office of the college your child is planning to attend also can help answer questions you may have about your students' financial aid.

Planning ahead

Before students start college, Garfield recommends parents sit down with their kids and budget. Figure out the cost of more than just tuition and books, she says, suggesting, if your student is going to school out-of-state, how much will it cost to move her out there or for her to commute home? Students and parents should talk about their cost of living in college and what their child's necessities will be, she advises.

Parents with kids entering and starting college will receive a lot of reading material from the financial aid and admissions offices.

"Be prepared to read everything you receive," Garfield says, noting that a lot of times, answers to frequently asked questions are included – as well as information you need to know.

And if the school your child plans on attending offers her money, check to see how much it is in comparison with the cost of attendance, she notes. As an example, if a private school offers your child $20,000 per year but the tuition is about $40,000 a year, evaluate if you can afford the remaining charges. 

Know your deadlines

Federal: Gabriela Garfield, interim senior director of student financial aid at Wayne State University, says students technically have a year to file FAFSA. So for the 2014-15 school year, it will be available Jan. 1, 2014 – and the deadline is June 30, 2015.

State: Michigan also has a deadline for submitting FAFSA, which Garfield says the state uses to project the number of students who qualify for these sorts of funds. Heads up: It's earlier than the federal deadline. To check Michigan's deadline, visit the FAFSA website, click "deadlines" and select "Michigan."

School: Your students' future school might have a deadline set, so it can assess who qualifies for their institutional aid. Garfield says it's usually in March. To find out the exact deadline, reach out to the school your child plans on attending.

Websites to visit

The following websites are important resources you'll need to know about when preparing to fill out FAFSA.

FAFSA website. This where you'll fill out your FAFSA if you plan to do so online – and find out about your filing deadlines and filing options. You also can visit its "help" page, where you'll get answers to frequently asked questions, as well as the Federal Student Aid Information Center's contact information.

PIN website. Sign up for your Federal Student Aid PIN by filling out an application. You'll need your PIN to electronically sign your FAFSA and access your records.

Federal Student Aid website. Get the answers to all your financial aid questions, including what materials you need to fill out FAFSA, how financial aid is determined, what kind of aid is available, how to accept your aid, how loan repayment works and more.

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