How to navigate the difficult FAFSA process
Everyone needs money to pay for college. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which opened in October, is required to be eligible for over $24 billion in grants, loans, work-study programs and even scholarships each year.
“I think there are a lot of people who qualify that don’t think they will qualify, so they don’t fill out the FAFSA,” said Briget Jans, the executive director of student financial aid at UH.
Jans said it’s not unusual for students with six-figure family incomes to qualify for aid like subsidized loans depending on their financial situations. Subsidized federal loans don’t collect interest while students are in school.
Even if students don’t qualify for federal financial aid, Jans encourages them to file for FAFSA because it also qualifies students for state and university aid.
Some primarily merit-based UH scholarships have a need requirement. Without a FAFSA on file, students can’t be considered for these scholarships. While FAFSA opened this month, the UH scholarship application will be open from Dec. 15 to Feb. 26, Jans said.
Even if students didn’t receive state or university aid in previous years, they should apply this year. Jans said the state has allocated $2 million more in financial aid to UH than in previous years, and UH is working to increase aid to students with financial need.
A hard deadline
This is the second year that FAFSA opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1. The earlier deadline gives students an additional two months to complete the application. More people than ever are filing, which means the funds are consumed faster. More than 238,000 students completed the FAFSA the first day.
“Someone who waits till March 16 to fill it out is probably really not going to make the cutoff,” Jans said. “The reality is that deadline is pretty solid.”
The UH financial aid priority deadline is March 15, which is based on the state’s deadline for the Towards EXcellence, Access and Success Grants.
Jans said taking time to apply and meet deadlines is crucial.
“The key to financial aid is always planning ahead,” Jans said.
Changes this year
Applicants may notice some changes to FAFSA this year. When tax information is fetched from the IRS, the words “Transferred from the IRS” appear in the data entry fields.
Applicants can’t see or correct their financial data. While it’s unnerving to not be able to verify information, this is an attempt to prevent hackers from skimming income data, filing fraudulent tax returns and collecting illegal refunds.
The Department of Education released a statement about the IRS data retrieval tool, saying, “We do not expect that there will be a need to make many corrections.”
This is the second year that applicants can complete the FAFSA with tax returns from two years prior. The 2018-2019 financial aid application is based on 2016 tax filings.
This makes it easier to complete the FAFSA. Filing rates increased by 6 percent last year — the first time the rate has increased in four years.
If a student’s family financial situation has drastically changed since they filed their 2016 income tax return, students should speak with the UH Financial Aid Office.
Complicated FAFSA forms
Completing the FAFSA can be complicated. Jans said students who experience difficulty filling out FAFSA should get help from the Financial Aid Office, which is happy to help, Jans said.
“It’s easier for us if they get it right in the first place,” she said.
With 180 questions, the FAFSA application is longer than the federal income tax form. The amount of personal and family financial information is difficult to track down, especially for low-income students.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chair of the Senate education committee, has said simplifying financial aid is a key goal.