December 11, 2017
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It’s financial aid season for college applicants, a time when deadlines rule

By Matthew Stone, BDN Staff
Updated:

High school seniors across Maine have written their personal essays, completed their applications and submitted them to the colleges they might attend in the fall. Others are still at work on those applications with later deadlines.

Now that it’s January, the focus shifts to the applications for the financial aid that can make college a whole lot more affordable or be the difference between attending or not attending. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is now available for the 2015-16 academic year at fafsa.gov.

“You want to make sure you fill out that financial aid paperwork no matter what,” said Martha Johnston, director of education at the Finance Authority of Maine. “You do not have to wait to be accepted to do the paperwork.”

But there are a number of myths and psychological hurdles that might keep families from filling out the FAFSA early or even filling it out altogether, according to Johnston.

“I think the reputation is that it’s intimidating, but it’s actually not,” she said.

The federal government has streamlined parts of the FAFSA in recent years, cutting questions and allowing the online FAFSA to automatically import tax return data from the IRS. It’s still a widely held belief, though, that the form is too complicated. Maine Sen. Angus King and five other senators on Wednesday introduced legislation to cut the FAFSA to just two questions that would fit on a postcard.

There has also been discussion recently about the prospect that college admissions offices use nonfinancial information from the FAFSA — specifically, the order in which students list college names on the application (which indicates which colleges receive the information) — to inform admissions or financial aid decisions. “Colleges assume that students list colleges in their order of preference,” read a recent Time article, “and some will award more aid to those who list their college second or third, say, in an effort to woo students away from their first choice.”

It’s not clear how common the practice is, and Johnston says FAME has typically instructed students to list college names alphabetically so it’s clear to financial aid officers that students aren’t ranking schools by preference.

Johnston spoke recently with the BDN about the importance of completing the FAFSA. The key takeaway? Don’t miss the varying FAFSA submission deadlines set by colleges.

FAME is reaching out to families from across the state through a series of in-person help sessions where FAME specialists will help families navigate the FAFSA application. FAME is hosting 29 workshops throughout the state in January and February, including a 6 p.m. session Tuesday, Jan. 27, at the United Technologies Center in Bangor. Visit famemaine.com/fafsa to view the full schedule.

Why is the prospect of filling out the FAFSA so intimidating? What is FAME trying to do about that?

We’re trying to say to people, “even if you feel like you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, come to one of these sessions to get help.” You can do this, and we can help you do it. I think the cost factor, too, already makes it an anxiety-ridden process. A lot of families already know the cost of attendance is high.

Why do you encourage families to complete the FAFSA as early as possible?

Many colleges and universities have limited financial aid funding available, and one way they prioritize who gets funding is based on deadlines — sort of a first come, first served, if you will. It’s a way to deal with limited funding, basically, and it can make a big difference. For a student who misses a deadline, they may not qualify for as many resources as they would if they had applied on time.

That’s also an issue for returning students. You never want to miss the deadline.

What would you say to families who might decide against filling out the FAFSA due to the concern that they’re unlikely to qualify for aid?

Don’t make that assumption. A federal student loan, whether it’s a need-based loan or you didn’t qualify for a need-based loan, but you’d still like your son or daughter to access that type of assistance, you still need to fill out the FAFSA.

You just don’t want to close off any options, I think, is the best message to get across.

A lot of families feel like they can’t fill out the FAFSA until they fill out their tax return. [But] you can fill out the FAFSA using estimated financial information because [colleges] fully expect and they know you’re able to go back in and revise the information once you have filed your taxes.

Is the FAFSA only a concern for high school students who are looking to enroll in college full time, or should adult students hoping to re-enroll and pursue a degree also fill out the application?

The FAFSA’s for everybody — if you’re going to school part time, if you’re going to school full time. If you want to attend a college or university and you’d like to see if you qualify for assistance, the FAFSA’s the form you need to fill out.

It is important to understand whether more than the FAFSA is available [since some schools ask applicants to fill out financial aid forms in addition to the FAFSA, such as the CSS/Financial Aid Profile from the College Board], but the FAFSA is the gateway application.

What has happened in recent years to simplify the FAFSA?

The biggest thing is when they moved the FAFSA online. The vast majority of applicants now complete the FAFSA online. They use something that we call “Skip Logic.” Based on how you answer certain types of questions, it says, you don’t have to answer these other questions. In other cases, it won’t let you put in bad information.

You should be able to complete the FAFSA in 30 minutes, so it’s really not as intimidating as many people have heard.

Matthew Stone is the BDN’s opinion page editor.

 


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