FAFSA and CSS Profile: Best Tips, Resources, and Mistakes to Avoid

October 1 is the first day families can access, complete, and submit the 2021-2022 FAFSA and CSS Profile. Anyone logging in sooner will find themselves completing forms for the wrong school year. But September is the month to carefully consider the pros and cons of applying for need-based aid.

Families with college students need to understand all about the FAFSA. (Twenty20 @criene)

If you decide to go ahead with it, here is a useful tip sheet from Big J Educational Consulting. It includes the 21 most important things your family needs to know to successfully manage the financial aid application process.

Guide to completing the FAFSA and CSS Profile

  1. For current seniors and transfers applying to college for the 2021-2022 school year, the family’s 2019 tax returns will be required. Be sure these have already been submitted and processed.
  2. It is the student’s FAFSA and CSS Profile, not the parent’s, though often adults complete these forms on the student’s behalf.
  3. It is best for students to begin the process by creating their Federal Student Aid ID. This is their digital fingerprint associated with their name and email address. Here is where they should go to create their FSA ID
  4. Anyone else who expects to access the student’s FAFSA must create their own FSA ID as well, but only after the student has created theirs. If the student is a dependent and younger than 24-years-old, the parent will need to cosign the FAFSA and will therefore require their own FSA ID.
  5. After the student has created their FSA ID, their FAFSA can be started here.
  6. About 150 institutions also require the CSS Profile for applicants requesting need-based aid. The list of institutions is here, but it is always best to verify with the institution itself.
  7. Within a few hours of submitting the FAFSA, the student should receive an email that it has been successfully processed. Within a few days, they should receive another email containing a link to their Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR contains a crucially important number—their Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Parents overseeing the process should tell their children to forward all Department of Education emails to them, which may also include requests for further verification and documentation.
  8. When beginning the FAFSA, best practice is to select the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). This will automatically populate many of the FAFSA’s questions directly from the federal tax returns, making completion much simpler. Under recent Department of Education guidelines, these populated fields are shielded from the filer, though the financial aid offices will be able to view the numbers. If the DRT is not selected, financial aid offices will most likely request further verification from the filer that the numbers they have entered actually agree with their tax returns. 
  9. In certain circumstances, a filer will be ineligible to select the DRT. Here are the DRT rules.
  10. In cases of separation, divorce, and non-traditional families, it may be unclear who should be listed as the parent on the FAFSA. Here are the rules for parents who are divorced or have non-traditional family.
  11. Since these forms are designed to be submitted once, listing all colleges, it is crucial that they are submitted before the earliest financial aid deadline. If a student is applying in the early decision or early action round, that could be as soon as November 1. 
  12. The FAFSA allows the applicant to list ten colleges only. What if you are applying to more? First, submit the FAFSA with ten colleges. Once you receive confirmation that your FAFSA has been processed, you know that all of your colleges have received their ISIR, the institutional report generated by the applicant’s FAFSA. It is now safe to log back in, delete the number of schools necessary, add the remaining schools, and submit again. 
  13. Does it matter in which order I list my schools on the FAFSA? Annoyingly, a few states require that an eligible in-state institution be listed at the top of the FAFSA if the student wants to be considered for state financial aid. It is a good practice for every filer to do that. Other than that, the institutions will not see any other institution on their ISIR, so the order of colleges listed is irrelevant. 
  14. Financial aid deadlines vary significantly school to school. It is the applicant’s responsibility to know these deadlines, available on the college’s website or by calling the financial aid office. Missing a financial aid deadline can seriously jeopardize a student’s eligibility for aid.
  15. Common mistake: If a parent is the custodian of a 529 college savings plan for which the student is the beneficiary, be sure to list this as a parent asset, not a student asset. Parent assets are assessed at 5 to 5.64 percent per year, and student assets are assessed at 20 to 25 percent per year.
  16. Common mistake: It may be confusing to figure out where on these forms to list a particular asset, but the important thing is not to list it twice. Doing so will reduce the amount of financial aid a student is eligible to receive.
  17. Many colleges will ask on the college application if the student expects to apply for need-based aid. It is important that the answer be accurate and truthful. If the student selects “no” and then submits the FAFSA (and CSS Profile) to the college, one of three things may happen: 1) the college contacts the student to clarify whether or not they’re actually applying for need-based aid, inconveniencing an already overworked financial aid office; 2) the college doesn’t contact the student and processes the forms assuming the student is applying for need-based aid; or 3) the college doesn’t contact the student and assumes the student is not applying for need-based aid. The student would still be eligible for federal aid (student loans and Pell Grants), but may be ineligible for institutional grants, often the largest source of need-based aid. So it’s best to answer this question accurately the first time and not play games. 
  18. Most schools that offer non-need-based merit aid do not require the FAFSA or CSS Profile for merit aid consideration. However, a handful of institutions do. Because there is no trusted or curated list of these schools, it is the applicant’s responsibility to learn from each of their prospective institutions whether either of these forms is required. This information can be found on the college’s website or by speaking directly with the admission office.
  19. Families who are applying for need-based financial aid should understand that the annual limit of federal student loans is usually included in the financial aid award. A few highly selective schools with large endowments have replaced these loans with additional institutional grants. For dependent undergraduate students, these limits are $5,500 for freshmen, $6,500 for sophomores, $7,500 for juniors, and $7,500 for seniors. For undergraduates requiring more than four years to complete their degree, the $27,000 total undergraduate loan limit increases to $31,000. For those borrowing for the current 2020-2021 school year, the interest rate is 2.75% and fee about 1%. With its built-in protections and low cost, federal undergraduate student loans are the best option for students who want to borrow. 
  20. For families who do not want to apply for need-based aid but do want to make use of the federal student loan program, the FAFSA will need to be submitted. My recommendation for these families is to check “no” on the college application asking if the student expects to apply for need-based aid, to deposit at the school of their choice by May 1, and then to submit the FAFSA. It’s best to contact the financial aid office and let them know that it was submitted for the purpose of federal student loans only. This way, there is no confusion about whether the student is, or is not, applying for need-based aid.
  21. Most questions on the FAFSA and CSS Profile have embedded explanations or point to specific line items in the federal tax returns. For those filers requiring further assistance, the help line phone numbers are 1-800-433-3243 (FAFSA) and 1-844-202-0524 (CSS Profile).

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It’s Time to Have the Tough Talk About College Educational consultant, Jeff Levy, guides parents through the conversation they need to have about how much they can afford to pay for college.

About Jeff Levy

Jeff Levy, CEP, is an educational consultant based in Santa Monica, California. He works with students locally, regionally, and internationally on their college search and application process, and with parents on college affordability and financial aid. his website.

Read more posts by Jeff

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