What You Need To Know About Student Financial Aid

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — With college costs rising higher than the rate of inflation, paying for higher education is becoming harder than ever. Thankfully, there are measures in place to assuage the pain for students and their families, especially as we head into the back to school season.

From filling out the all important FAFSA form to finding scholarships, we polled experts and financial aid officers to share their top tips.

1. Remember, FAFSA is free
FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid and should be filled out only at fafsa.ed.gov. "Do not complete it at fafsa.com or other commercial sites that charges money – it’s called the free Application for a reason," advises Vince Frank, director of financial aid at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

2. Yes, you should follow the form's directions
It sounds like a non-issue, but college financial aid officers tell us mistakes on FAFSA are common and can end up costing students and their families to lose out on aid.

"An example of this is on the worksheet required of students that are selected for verification. The applicant is asked to 'list the people in your parents’ household, including yourself, your parents and your parents’ other children.’ The chart provided asks for age, relationship and college attended for each household member. Applicants often include only those members of their household that attended college because they do not read the instructions but rather look at the columns provided in the chart," says Tim Dawson, director of admissions and enrollment systems at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

3. FAFSA: Custodial parent's household
When filling out the form, it's important to keep in mind how the info you provide is based on your custodial parent's household. "FAFSA is completed on the basis of the biological parent with whom the student lived the greater portion of the 12 months prior to FAFSA completion," says Ed Irish, director of financial aid at the College of William and Mary. "If the student lived equal time with both biological parents, the parent who provided the greater amount of financial support should be listed.”

For students with divorced parents who have remarried, the step-parent's information is also needed.

4. How aid is determined
First, your Estimated Family Contribution is calculated based off the information you provided on FAFSA. Keep in mind that parent assets are counted at 5.6%, while student assets are counted at 20%.

Additionally, IRAs, Roth IRAs and 401(k)s are not accounted for on FAFSA, but the contributions and withdrawals need to be disclosed.

5. Helpful FAFSA tips
Filling out FAFSA is a delicate process, to say the least. To ease and speed up the process, Seton Hall’s director of financial aid, Javonda Asante, offers these pointers when tackling the form:

  • When filing the FAFSA, make sure you list the student’s and parent’s full name as listed on their Social Security card. This is one of the most common reasons a FAFSA is not processed, because the FAFSA verifies against the Social Security Administration database. Be sure not to use your nickname (for example, Joe instead of Joseph.)
  • Before filing the FAFSA make sure you have copies of the student’s and the parent’s tax returns and Social Security Numbers on hand to help you answer questions properly.
  • Have a list of your potential college choices on hands and be sure to include the school's codes on the FAFSA to ensure each school gets the information and provides you with a financial aid package.

6. FAFSA isn't the only financial aid form
Did you know that in addition to FAFSA, there is another form called CSS Profile (College Scholarship Service), run by the College Board and used by private colleges?

According to Rhode Island CFP Kevin R. Worthley, the CSS is a much more investigative review of the family's finances. "I call the CSS Profile the evil twin sister of the FASFA."

Worthley says the CSS assesses parent income around the same or slightly less than FAFSA, but student income is considered slightly different. "CSS institutes a minimum student income contribution between $1,800 and $2,400," he says.

Additionally, Worthley tells us that CSS assesses home equity, family farm value and all business equity, while sibling asset values are counted as parental assets.

The form is not free; fees include a $25 setup charge, which includes the ability to send the report to one college. Sending the form to additional colleges costs $16 each.

7. Data retrieval
Filling out FAFSA is time consuming. But thanks to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, if you've filed taxes, data can be transferred from your tax returns onto the FAFSA form. This will save you time, as the tool automatically answers several FAFSA questions for you.

8. Scholarships
Are they hard to get? Yes. Are the impossible? No! Spend 30 minutes per day researching or filling out scholarship applications using websites such as Fastweb.com and Zinch.com. And if you're essay-writing averse, there are plenty of scholarships that don't require an essay for entry.

Scott Gamm is the founder of the personal finance website HelpSaveMyDollars.com. He has appeared on NBC’s “Today,” MSNBC and CNN. Follow Scott on Facebook and Twitter .

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