The Ultimate College Application Workbook

Are You Stressed About Your Child's College Applications?

If so, now's the time to learn how to:

  • Understand What Admissions Committees Want
  • Help Your Child Highlight Their Strengths
  • Figure Out the True Costs Before Applying

Where Should I Send the Download?

In this post, I’ll give you a financial aid overview along with other tips for finding money for college.

I’ll explain how you will fill out the financial aid forms, including the FAFSA, CSS PROFILE, and other forms that your colleges may require. (Keep in mind, however, that you cannot actually submit the FAFSA until after January 1 of the year that you plan to start college. The CSS can be submitted after October 1 of the year before you plan to start college.)

Finding Money for CollegeYou’ll also learn about the different types of financial aid (grants/scholarships, work-study, and loans), and do some calculations to determine what a reasonable amount of student loan debt to take on, if you have to take out loans.

How to Find Money for College

Before I turn to discussion of financial aid, let’s first examine how much college actually costs these days.

According to the College Board, the average cost of a four-year degree at a public university (including room and board) is approximately $70,000, while the average cost of a four-year degree at a private school (including room and board) comes in at over $220,000.

These prices have gone up dramatically over the past twenty-five years. According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, average tuition has risen by 440% since the mid-1980s. This works out to increasing at four times the rate of inflation.

Because of the skyrocketing costs, we’ve also seen a huge jump in the number of students taking out loans to pay for school.

According to the New York Times, fewer than half of students graduated college with student loans in 1993. By contrast, more than two-thirds of college grads today graduate with debt. In 2010, the average amount of student loan debt that a college graduate carried was roughly $24,000.
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So this raises the question of whether college is still worth the investment of time and money. Recent studies show that college will ultimately lead to higher earnings in your lifetime. According to the College Board, the median salary of people with a college degree is $55,700.

For a high school graduate, the median salary is $33,800. Over the course of a lifetime, the gap in earnings between college grads versus high school grads is more than $800,000. So college is still a good bet for if you want to earn a higher income. But you must exercise some common sense as you figure out the financial side of college.

How Does Financial Aid Work for Community College and Four Year Colleges?

So what do I mean when I talk about “financial aid”?

Financial aid is money that is either given to you or that you borrow to pay for college. Most aid comes from the federal government in the form of loans, and must be paid back with interest. If you qualify for financial aid, you will receive a financial aid package from the colleges to which you apply.

In all likelihood, however, you and your family will still be asked to pay for some—if not most—of your college education. In the United States, everyone receives a free K-12 education, even though some people choose to pay for private schools. College piggy bankeducation, by contrast, is not free.

And you and your parents bear the main responsibility for paying for college. Financial aid is designed to address any gap between what the government calculates that you are capable of paying and the cost of the school.

There are two basic types of financial aid.

The first is referred to as gift aid. Gift aid comes in the form of grants or scholarships and does not have to be repaid.

The second type of financial aid is referred to as self-help aid. This type of financial aid requires that you work for it or pay it back. Specifically, self-help aid comes in the form of work-study, which I will discuss later in this post. The vast majority of financial aid packages address financial need rather than merit through academics or athletics.

So where does the money come from?

70% of financial aid comes from the federal government, and the bulk of that comes in the form of loans. About 25% of financial aid comes from the colleges themselves. Private colleges give more financial aid than public colleges, but private school tuition is far higher than public universities. About 4% to 5% of all financial aid comes from private grants and scholarships.

I Don’t Have Money for College – What Should I Do?

The first task is to determine what the federal government thinks you and your family are capable of paying for your college education. The amount that your family will need to pay—in the form of savings or loans—is called the “expected family contribution” or “EFC.” The EFC is calculated through a formula that the federal government uses to determine how much money your family can afford to pay.

It is based on financial questions that you will answer using the FAFSA. Expected family contribution is the amount that your family is expected to contribute to college costs.

Any college costs above your EFC is considered your financial need. Many colleges will i don't have money for collegeprovide a financial aid package that will fully meet your financial need. Other colleges, however, won’t offer enough aid to cover your financial need. This is referred to as a “gap” or “unmet need” when a college will not cover the full need.

So how are college savings calculated into your EFC?

Some families begin saving for college years before their children are ready to apply, using 529 college savings plans or other investment funds. Other families, however, worry that saving a lot of money for college will limit the amount of financial aid that they are able to receive.

In EFC calculations, the formula subtracts what it calls an “asset protection allowance” from the amount you have saved. The federal government gives an “allowance” of up to tens of thousands of dollars for these “assets” and does not calculate them into your EFC. It is a good idea to have college savings up to a certain allowable amount, because it will not negatively impact the EFC.

In addition, if you have savings that exceed the allowance, they will only be assessed at 5.6% at most. So college savings really don’t count against you when it comes to determining the EFC.

It is a good idea to calculate a rough estimate of your EFC at this point. There are a couple of websites that provide calculators so that you can input some financial information and get a sense of how much your family is expected to contribute.  You can also find an EFC calculator here.

I Have No Money for College, But They Say I Have to Pay How Much?

Many parents are shocked when they see their EFC. They think that the amount the federal government expects them to contribute to college is outrageously high. And frankly, the EFC formula is problematic.

According to critics, there are three main problems with the EFC calculations.

First, the budget estimates that it relies on are outdated. They do not take into account expenses like childcare, computers, or Internet costs. i don't have money for college

Second, the EFC does not account for cost-of-living differences in different regions of the country. This particularly works against families living in high-cost areas because the EFC assumes that they can contribute as much for college expenses as families living in cheaper areas.

The third critique of the EFC is that it has very conservative spending assumptions.

The formula does not take into account that many parents are spending some of their disposable income on their own student loans or paying for private secondary schools. To make matters even more complicated, the EFC calculated by one of your colleges may be different than the one calculated by the federal government.

Some colleges use unique formulas to determine their version of the EFC. You won’t know if the college calculates the EFC a different way until you receive your financial aid offer letter from the school.

Once you have a rough estimate for the EFC, it is time to get a sense of what your financial need will be for each of your schools. Do some research on the costs of the various schools to which you are applying.

Do some quick math to determine what your financial need is for all of the schools. This is a quick calculation in which you take the total cost of tuition (and books, supplies, and room and board) and subtract your EFC. If there is a difference between the total costs and the EFC, you have financial need for that school.

How to Get Money for School

At this point, you might be wondering how your family is going to come up with the EFC.

There are basically three different strategies that you can employ: save money, get a job while you go to college, or take out loans.

I discuss loan options here, so now I’ll give you an overview of how to save for college and how to work while going to school.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, your financial aid offer may include a sum of money that is called “unmet need.” This is an amount of cash that is technically considered part of your financial need, but the college is not going to provide aid to cover that need. As a result, the unmet need basically becomes part of your family’s financial contribution. The strategies discussed here can help you get cash for any unmet need as well.

How to Get Free Money for College

There are basically three strategies for coming up with cash to cover the Estimated Family Contribution: 1) use college savings, 2) pull the money from another savings vehicle, or 3) work to pay for school.

If your parents have managed to save money in any of the popular college savings plans—529 savings plans, Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, 529 prepaid tuition plans, or Uniform Gifts to Minors Act accounts—then you should begin by using those to pay for your EFC. The recession hit 529 plans particularly hard as net contributions dropped 63% in 2008. Check with your parents to see if they have a 529 plan and where it stands.

The second way to find money to cover the EFC is to pull it from other savings accounts. In recent years, more and more parents have been pulling money from their IRAs to pay for college costs. In 2010, for example, 6% of parents took money from a retirement fund to pay college expenses, up from 3% in 2009.

If your parents do raid their IRA for college expenses, they don’t have to pay the 10% early withdrawal penalty that normally applies when pulling money out of an IRA before age 59½. A 401(k) is a bit trickier to pull money from, because your parents have to demonstrate that they have a financial hardship. They might be able to borrow the money from the 401(k) and repay it with interest.

Keep in mind, however, that many well-known financial advisors—most notably Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey—argue that parents should not use retirement funds to pay for college expenses.

The third strategy for finding cash to meet the EFC is to work while going to school. What I’m talking about here is a regular job. I’ll discuss work-study opportunities—which are part of the federal financial aid program—later in this post.

At the very least, you should consider working during the summer to be able to contribute financially to your college costs. In addition, you should consider looking for a part-time job during school year.

Most college advisors recommend that you work no more than ten to fifteen hours per week during the school year. There are two main benefits to working while in school.
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First, earning money during the school year, you can reduce your reliance on student loans. Second, you will gain work experience while getting your degree. This can make you stand out in a tough job market. Bear in mind, however, that your earnings will impact your EFC. Generally speaking, about half of your earnings are credited towards your EFC.

Some people worry that their grades will fall while employed and attending college. Interestingly, however, a 2001 study shows that students who work part-time tend to get better grades in college. When you’re working and going school, you are forced to really organize your time well.

How to Fill Out Financial Aid Forms

There are up to three different types of financial aid forms you may need to fill out depending on the requirements of your college. These include the FAFSA, the College Scholarship Service’s Financial Aid PROFILE (CSS PROFILE), or specific state or college forms.

Everyone should fill out the FAFSA so that they can see if they are eligible for federal aid. The CSS PROFILE is currently only required by about 250 colleges. It is used to determine how to distribute college-based funds and it is generally only required by the priciest schools.

There are six key differences between FAFSA and CSS PROFILE:

•    The FAFSA cannot be submitted before January 1 of the year that you are seeking aid, while the CSS PROFILE can be submitted in the previous fall.
•    The FAFSA asks everyone the exact same questions, while the CSS PROFILE has questions that are specific to the school to which you’re applying.
•    When calculating your financial need, the FAFSA relies on the Federal Methodology (FM) while the CSS PROFILE uses the Institutional Methodology (IM). The fundamental difference between these methodologies is that the FM relies on more general financial information about your family, while the IM wants more detailed information. For example, the IM has specific questions about your parents’ home equity and other assets.
•    The FAFSA does not require a minimum student contribution, while the CSS PROFILE does.
•    The FAFSA follows a strict formula for calculating financial need, while the CSS PROFILE gives financial aid counselors greater freedom to base financial aid offers on a student’s particular circumstances.
•    The FAFSA is free, while the CSS PROFILE costs $9 to file and charges an additional $16 for each school to which you send your information.

I will walk you through each step of how to fill out these financial aid forms. Because the FAFSA is much more common, I will begin with it and then move on to the CSS PROFILE. I’ll also give a brief overview of the different types of state or college forms you may be asked to complete.

How to Fill Out the FAFSA Step-by-Step

The FAFSA becomes available on January 1 of each year. You can fill it out online or fill in a PDF, print it out, and mail it in. It is a good idea to fill out the FAFSA as early as possible, because some schools give out financial aid in the order in which they receive the information from the FAFSA. There is no fee for filing the FAFSA.

But beware, in recent years, some Internet companies have sprung up offering to fill out your FAFSA for a fee. This is unnecessary. The form may look overwhelming, but it is actually pretty simple. I will show you exactly how to fill it out below.

You should fill out and submit your FAFSA as soon as possible after the January 1 opening date. Even though the FAFSA form gives a deadline of June 30, colleges tend to make their financial aid decisions in February and March, so they need that information as quickly as possible.

If you’re worried that you do not have all of your tax forms in January, it is best just to estimate by using last year’s tax returns. You can correct the FAFSA estimates when you have your completed return.

You can fill out the FAFSA online or print it out and fill it in on a PDF. At this point, FAFSA applications that are mailed in take about a month to process. After you submit the FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR)—in about a week if you submit the form online and about a month if you mail the form.

As soon as you receive your SAR, make sure that you take a careful look at it. It will tell you what your official EFC is. You can also update any new information from your tax return. This information will go to the financial office at the school that you choose to attend to determine how much financial aid you will receive.

Financial Aid Verification Process

About one-third of FAFSA applications are selected for what is called the verification process. If you are selected for verification, you will need to fill out a verification worksheet, provide federal tax returns, and possibly provide other financial documents.

To make this process as painless as possible, you need to gather a number of financial records before sitting down to fill out the FAFSA. Specifically, you’ll need:
•    Most recent tax returns
•    W-2 forms for the previous year
•    Bank statements
•    Information about other investments

Also, you need to determine if you are eligible for federal aid. To receive federal aid, you must:
•    be a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen
•    have a Social Security number
•    not have a conviction for sale or possession of drugs
•    be registered with Selective Service (if male and at least 18 years old).

How to Get A FAFSA Pin Number

It makes sense to fill out the FAFSA online. It will reduce the amount of processing time and it also helps catch any errors before you submit it. You can also return to it later and work on the FAFSA at a later time.

You have 45 days to submit it. In order to sign the FAFSA electronically, you will need to get a PIN. Both you and your parents will need to sign the form with a different PIN. You can easily register for PINs at www.pin.ed.gov.

There are eight sections to the FAFSA:

1) questions about you (the student),

2) questions about which schools you are applying to,

3) questions to determine if you qualify for independent status,

4) questions about your parents,

5) questions about your parents’ finances,

6) questions about your financial information,

7) signature, and

8) confirmation.

There are a few things to keep in mind as you fill out the FAFSA.

First, when the question refers to “you,” it means the student.

Second, when the FAFSA asks about “college,” it means any college, university, or community college.

Third, the questions about income refer to the previous year, while the questions about assets refer to their value on the day you are filling out form.

Fourth, “net worth” means the value of an asset minus any debt owed on it.

Finally, just round off dollar amounts.

Step 1: Questions about You (the Student)
Name: Enter your name as it appears on your Social Security card. No nicknames. If the names don’t match, your FAFSA will be delayed.

Address:  Put down your permanent home address.

Social Security Number: You need a Social Security number to apply for federal aid. Make sure you double check that you entered it correctly, because an error will delay the processing of your FAFSA.

Phone Number: Use your permanent home or cell phone number.

Driver’s License Number: Enter it if you have one. If not, leave blank.

Citizenship Status: You are considered to be a citizen if you were born in the United States or went through the naturalization process. To be considered as an eligible non-citizen, you must be a permanent resident with a green card or have refugee status and be allowed to live permanently in the United States. If you are an eligible non-citizen, you need to include more alien registration.

E-mail Address: Although it is optional to include your e-mail address, I recommend that you do so because you will receive your SAR even more quickly through e-mail. The federal government will also provide this e-mail address to the colleges to which you’re applying. Please make sure that you have created an appropriate e-mail address.

Marital Status: This refers to your marital status on the day that you are filing the FAFSA. You cannot change this information once you file the FAFSA. If your marital status changes after you submit the form, you will need to contact the financial aid offices at the colleges where you are applying.

State of Legal Residence: There are two parts to this question. The first asks which state you currently reside in. The second part asks if you have lived in the state for less than five years. This information will help determine if you are eligible for in-state tuition at public universities. Also, it will help determine if you are eligible for certain grants and scholarships from your state.

Male or Female: This question asks if you are male or female. If you are a male between age 18 and 25, you must be registered with Selective Service in order to be eligible for financial aid. If you’re not registered, there is a box that you can mark so that you will be registered.

Conviction for Sale or Possession of Drugs: You should answer “yes” to this question only if the events occurred while you were receiving financial aid. If this is your first time filling out the FAFSA, this question won’t even come up on the online form. If you do have a conviction while you were receiving financial aid, then you will be asked to fill out an additional worksheet that the Department of Education will mail to you after you submit your FAFSA.

Parents’ Schooling: Some states provide financial aid to students who are the first in their family to attend college. Federal financial aid is not impacted by this question.

High School Completion Status: To be eligible for federal financial aid, you need to have a high school diploma or its equivalent. This could include a GED diploma. If you are homeschooled, it means that you completed your state’s requirements for homeschooling at the high school level.

Name and Address of Your High School: If you are doing this form online, it will allow you to find your high school on a list and auto-fill the name.

Grade Level: Your answer will determine if you qualify for specific financial aid programs based on your year in school.

Degree: This question asks you to list what degree you will be working towards in the coming year. Sometimes, certain forms of financial aid are not available for certain degree programs. If you are not sure if you are going to attend a community college or four-year college, mark “Undecided.” Once you have decided, make sure to contact your college to inform them of your choice.

Work-Study: This asks if you are interested in work-study jobs while in college. I will talk about work-study later in this chapter. I recommend marking “yes” since it is one of the best forms of financial aid available. Moreover, you are not required to take a work-study job just because you marked this box.

Step 2: Student Financial Information
This section asks questions about your income and assets. It also determines whether or not you are an independent. Here is the information that you must include in this section.

Tax Return: This question refers to the tax return that is due on April 15. If you have filed a tax return or plan to file one, you will need to indicate which type of form you will use, the 1040 or the 1040EZ. You should check “yes” if you are eligible to file a 1040EZ (allowed for all persons making less than $100,000 who do not itemize deductions). If you did not work and are not filing a tax form, you can skip a few questions below.

Income Tax Information: These questions are easy to answer if you have done a draft of your tax return. If you haven’t done your taxes yet, use your W-2 and your previous year’s tax form to put in estimates. You can amend your answers later. Do not put off filing the FAFSA until you file your taxes on April 15! You should send in your FAFSA as close to the January 1 opening date as possible, even if it means that you have to amend your tax information later.

Assets: This section asks about the total of your assets—money and property—that you own today. You should look at your bank statements to get these numbers. Also, include any CDs, savings bonds, or stock shares that you might have.

Untaxed Income: Untaxed income includes earned income credits, welfare benefits, Social Security benefits, child support, and all other money that you receive that is untaxed. You will be asked to fill in a worksheet online to calculate the total amount. Be sure to print out this worksheet and save it in a file folder.

Step 3: Independent Status
The questions in step three determine if you can be considered an independent student.

The federal government has very strict criteria for determining that you have independent status. The characteristics that would qualify you for independent status are:
•    You are age 24 or older when you start college.
•    You will be enrolled in a graduate degree program.
•    You are married.
•    You have children who get more than half of their child support from you.
•    You have dependents other than your children or spouse who live with you and get more than half their support from you.
•    You’re an orphan, or you’ve been a ward/dependent of the court.
•    You’re currently serving in, or are a veteran of, the active-duty U.S. Armed Forces. Reservists who did not activate do not count.
•    You are a homeless, unaccompanied youth or you are at risk of becoming one.
If you are independent, then you do not have to have your parents fill out the questions pertaining to their finances.

If you cannot get financial information about your parents, you will need to contact the financial aid offices at the colleges where you are applying. They should have a protocol in place for you to follow to show that you have special circumstances regarding your financial aid application.

Step 4: Questions about your Parents
This is the most complicated part of the FAFSA, yet when you look at it closely, you see that it really isn’t that bad. There are two basic sections to the parent questions. The first section asks for demographic information about your parents’ household. The second section asks for specific financial information. Most of this information can be found on your parents’ federal income tax forms. Even better, the FAFSA tells you exactly where to find the answers to these questions on the tax forms.

You will need to answer the demographic questions about your parents if you are a dependent student, even if you do not live with either or both of them. At least one of your parents will also need to sign the FAFSA form on paper or by using a PIN.

The FAFSA has very strict definitions for how to classify a “parent.”
•    If both of your parents are living and married to each other, you need to answer the questions about both of them.
•    If only one of your parents is still alive, you need to answer the questions about him or her.
•    If your widowed parent has remarried, answer questions about your parent and stepparent.
•    If you were raised by a single parent, answer the questions about him or her.
•    If your parents are divorced or separated, answer the questions about the parent who you have lived with for most of the past year.
•    If that parent has remarried, answer the questions about your stepparent as well.
•    You should not provide any information about grandparents, foster parents, or legal guardians. For the purposes of FAFSA, they are not considered your parents unless they have legally adopted you.

Here are the questions the FAFSA asks about your parents:
Marital Status: Mark the box that describes your parents’ marital status today.

Social Security Numbers: Although you must have a Social Security number to file the FAFSA, your parents do not have to have them. If they do have numbers, they must list them. If they don’t, they can just list 000-000-0000.

Names: Make sure their names match their Social Security cards (if they have them).

Parents’ State of Legal Residence: This question asks about your parents’ state of residence. If they have lived in the state for fewer than five years, they will have to indicate when their legal residency began.

Number of People in Your Parents’ Household/College Students in Household: This number should include you, your parents, your parents’ other children if your parents provide more than half of their support, and other people if they live with your parents and your parents provide more than half of their support. The next question asks how many people in your parents’ household are enrolled in college. This includes you (and any other dependents in college), but not your parents.

Tax Return for Past Year: This refers to the tax return that will be due on April 15.

Type of Tax Return: This section asks if your parents will file a 1040 or if they are eligible to file a 1040EZ form.

Dislocated Worker: You should answer “yes” to this question if either or both of your parents have been laid off and are still unemployed. Also answer “yes” if either parent lost a business in the past year. Your parent can also be considered dislocated if they stay at home but do not receive support from a spouse and cannot find a job. If you do answer “yes” to this question, you should get in touch with the financial aid offices at the colleges where you are applying to explain your circumstances.

Income Tax Information: Again, the questions in this section are very easy to answer if your parents have done a draft of their tax return. If they haven’t, however, they should be able to come up with estimates using their W-2 forms, bank statements, and last year’s tax returns. The important thing to remember is that you must submit the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1. You can always go back later and fix any estimated numbers that you included in the FAFSA.

Assets: This section asks about the total amount of cash, savings, and other investments that your parents have. You should list the amounts that they have on the day they were filling out the FAFSA. This does not include the value of your parents’ house (their primary residence), a family business of less than 100 employees, or the family farm where they live. If your parents own more than one home, however, they will need to report the equity in the additional property under “investments.” In this section, your parents also need to include any money that they have in tax-advantaged retirement accounts, including IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s or other similar accounts.

Untaxed Income: Untaxed income refers to items like earned income credits, welfare benefits, Social Security benefits, child support, and other money that isn’t taxed. It also includes contributions that your parents made to deductible IRAs or employer retirement plans such as 401(k)s or 403(b)s. If you are using the online form, you will be asked to fill in worksheets and the total amounts will appear on the confirmation page. Make sure you print out those worksheets and put them in a file.

Step 6: Colleges
In this section, you’ll indicate which colleges should receive information from your FAFSA. If you’re using the online form, you can list up to ten colleges. If you’re using the paper one, you can list four. You can always add more colleges once you receive your SAR. For each college, you need to include the federal school code.

This can easily be found on the FAFSA website at www.fafsa.ed.gov. For each school, you need to determine if you want to live on campus, off-campus, or at home. The schools will take your answer into account when determining your financial need.

If you don’t know where you would prefer to live right now, I recommend that you mark that you will live on campus. On-campus housing is the priciest option and you want to make sure your financial need reflects these costs in case you do wind up living on campus.

Step 7: Signature
Before you submit your form, make sure that you proofread it once. If you paid someone to fill out the form for you, include their information in the section that asks about preparers. Make sure that you print out a copy and file it in the FAFSA file folder.
You will be given a list of terms to read before signing the electronic version:
•    You will only use financial aid to pay for college.
•    You are not in default on a federal student loan.
•    You do not owe money back on a federal student grant.
•    You will notify the college if you default on a federal student loan.
•    You will not receive a Pell grant from more than one college at a time.

By signing the form, you agree to the above conditions. You also swear that you have not included any “false or misleading information” or you will face a fine of up to $20,000.

This does not mean that you will be fined if you have to go back and correct some estimated figures once you or your parents file their tax returns. It is referring to intentional fraud.

At this point, you and your parents need to enter your PINs and sign the form electronically. I recommend that you avoid the “print signature page and mail.” If you mail the FAFSA in, it takes three to four times as long to be processed compared to electronic submission. Just put in your PINs and you are nearly done.

Step 8: Confirmation
A confirmation page will pop up. Make sure you print it out and put it in the file with the hard copy of your FAFSA and the worksheets that you printed out while filling out the form.

Next Step: What is the Student Aid Report?

After you have submitted your FAFSA, you will receive your student aid report (SAR). If you file the FAFSA electronically, you will receive it in less than a week. If you mailed it in, it may take three to four weeks for you to get your SAR. When you receive the SAR, make sure that you read it carefully.

It will have a summary of the information that you gave on the FAFSA form. Check this over to make sure that it is correct. If there are any errors or mistakes, just go to www.fafsa.ed.gov, log into your account, and go to “make FAFSA corrections.” This is also how you will add or remove colleges to the college list you provided on the FAFSA.

The SAR will also have your EFC. If you do not see an EFC, it means that they were unable to process your data due to incorrect or missing information. If that happens, you’ll need to make the required corrections in order to get your EFC.

How to Fill Out the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE Step-by-Step

Some colleges require an additional form known as the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. This form is distributed by the College Board and asks more detailed questions about your family finances than the FAFSA does. This form must be submitted online and requires a fee for each college where it sends its results. Unlike the FAFSA, it is available earlier—after October 1. stocks going up

The CSS can only be filled out and submitted online. If you are required to fill out the CSS, you’ll notice that it asks most of the same questions that were on the FAFSA. The CSS requests that you do so because they think that it provides a more accurate reflection of your family’s finances.

To be clear, you still have to fill out the FAFSA to be eligible for federal funds. The CSS processes your family’s financial status in order to determine how the colleges will disburse their own funding.

To speed up the amount of time it will take you to fill out the CSS, it is wise to do what is called a Pre-Application Worksheet. This is available from the College Board website at www.collegeboard.org.

The Pre-Application Worksheet tells you which financial forms you will need to collect before filling out the CSS and it also helps do preliminary calculations about your finances. Before starting on the CSS form, you will need to collect the following materials:
•    income tax returns for the year before you start college
•    income tax returns for the year prior to the year before you start college
•    W-2 forms or records of your earnings for the year before you start college
•    records about untaxed income for those two years
•    bank statements
•    mortgage information
•    information about investments, including stocks, bonds, and trusts
If you have not yet completed your tax return, you should use estimates from a previous year’s tax forms.

Just like with the online version of the FAFSA, you will need to register to get a PIN for the CSS PROFILE. You can do this at the College Board website. When you register, you will be asked some basic information including name, date of birth, address, citizenship status, and some family information.

There are also a few basic questions about your family finances. You also have to indicate which colleges that you want your CSS PROFILE report sent to. You can always add more colleges after you submit your application.

Here is a step-by-step overview of the CSS application. Don’t worry if some of these sections do not come up on the online version of the form. The CSS PROFILE tailors its questions based on your responses about your family finances.

Parents’ Data (PD): This section asks for some general information about your parents, including name, date of birth, occupation, education background, and retirement plans. The questions refer to the parents or parent with whom you live. If your parents are divorced or separated, then you should answer the questions about the parent with whom you live most of the time. If your parent is widowed or single, answer the questions about them. If your parent has remarried, you should include information about your stepparent as well.

Parents’ Household Information (PH): In this section, the CSS PROFILE asks for information about your parents’ household, including number of dependents of your parents, and how many dependents are in college.

Parents’ Income and Benefits (PI): The next section asks parents to report on their income for the year before you start college. If your parents have done their tax return, they can easily transfer information from the return to the CSS. If they haven’t filed their tax return yet, however, they will have to estimate the amounts. They will also be asked questions about untaxed income, including Social Security benefits and child support.

Parents’ Income and Benefits for the Year Before Last (PP): The questions in this section refer to your parents’ income in the previous year (the year prior to the year before you’ll start college). Colleges ask for this additional financial data because they want to gain an understanding of your family finances over a longer term than just one year. This is an easy section to complete because all of the answers can be found on your parents’ tax forms.

Parents’ Expected Income and Benefits (PF): These questions ask your parents to estimate their income for the year you start college. They will have to include estimates about income, other taxable income, and the amount of untaxed income.

Parents’ Assets (PA): Here, your parents are asked about assets that can help them pay for your college. These include questions about cash and savings as well as information about the market value and equity on their home.

Parents’ Business (BA) and/or Parents’ Farm (FA): The next two sections ask for information if your parents own a business or farm. They will be asked to report the value, debt, number of employees, and the tax forms that they used. If your parents do not own either a business or farm, you will not even see these sections.

Parents’ Expenses (PE): Here, your parents have to report any special expenses that might impact how much they can pay for your college education. These include questions about student loans, medical and dental expenses not covered by insurance, private school tuition, and mortgage or rental payments.

Information about Noncustodial Parent (NP): If your parents are divorced, your custodial parent should respond to these questions about your noncustodial parent. In particular, there are questions about your noncustodial parent’s employer, child support, and financial contributions to your college education.

Student’s Data (SD): This next part of the profile asks questions about you. You begin by listing which school you are currently attending and what year you are in. There are also questions about any scholarships or grants that you have received. There are other questions to try to determine if you should be considered independent.

Student’s Income and Benefits (SI): These questions are about your income in the year before you plan to start college. If you have a tax return for that year; you can easily fill in the information that the CSS Profile requests. Most of it is straight off of the tax return. If you will file a return but you haven’t done so yet, you will have to use estimates. If you did not work and will not file a tax return, these questions do not apply to you.

Student’s Expected Resources for Coming School Year (SR): In this section, you are asked to report on any financial resources that you expect to get in this coming summer and during the school year. There are specific questions about income, scholarships, and other sources of income that you might receive. Do your best to answer these questions based on your earnings from a job that you might currently hold or one that you had during the summer.

Student’s Assets (SA): In this section, there are a number of questions about your assets, including money or property that you may own. You will need to list the amount of cash and savings that you have as of the date you are filling out a form. You will also be asked a series of questions about any investment funds, retirement accounts, and trusts. If your family has saved money in a 529 plan, do not include that information here. It is not counted in your assets.

Student’s Expenses (SE): This question only appears if you are an independent student. If you are an independent student, you’ll be asked questions about any child support you have paid or any medical expenses that were not covered by insurance.

Dependent Family Member Listing (FM): Here, you are asked questions about each dependent family member in your custodial parents’ household. If you are an independent student, these questions refer to the household you described in the Student’s Data (SD) section. If you are a dependent, these questions are about the household you described in the Parents’ Data (PD) section. These questions ask you to list the names, relationship, ages, and education costs for the other dependents in your household.

Explanations/Special Circumstances (ES): In this section, you are asked to explain any unusual circumstances that affect the amount of money that your family can contribute to your college costs. In particular, you should explain any extraordinary medical costs, loss of employment for one or both of your parents, or any reasons why your family’s income has or will change.

Supplemental Questions (SQ): You may or may not be required to complete this supplemental information section. If one or more of the colleges to which you are applying requests supplemental questions, they will appear here. Some of these questions are used to determine if you are eligible for scholarships from the college.

Others are used to gather additional information about your family’s finances. In the Supplemental Information section, you will be asked about your family’s car, whether one of your parent’s employers provides housing as a job benefit, your religious affiliation, or which major you plan to pursue.

After you complete the CSS PROFILE online, you’ll receive a confirmation that lists which colleges the profile will be sent to. Make sure you print this out and file it in your CSS file folder. You can always add more colleges later if your application plans change.

Other Financial Aid Forms: College or State

In addition to the FAFSA and the CSS PROFILE, some colleges have their own financial aid forms for you submit. Check  to see if any of your schools require an institutional form. If they do, you will need to contact the financial aid office at that college and ask them about the form.

Colleges tend to use these forms to gain additional information about your family’s finances, as well as to see if you’re eligible for certain scholarships or grants. These forms are generally pretty short, one to two pages. Schools that use early decision often require institutional forms so that they can estimate your family’s EFC and determine your financial need without having to wait for the FAFSA results.

Although most states use the data from the FAFSA toward grants and loans, a few states have their own financial aid forms. When you submit your FAFSA online, you will automatically be taken to a screen that has any additional forms required by your state. If you submit the FAFSA by mail, however, you will have to download a paper copy of any state form. This is another reason that it is advisable to file the FAFSA online.

Don’t Forget about Financial Aid for Next Year

Keep in mind that the financial aid process is an ongoing one. You will have to fill out iStock_stack of booksrenewal forms for the FAFSA—and the CSS if your school requires it—each year. Also, make sure that you are making satisfactory academic progress (SAP), which means that you are keeping your grades up and taking enough units to maintain your eligibility for aid.

Pay attention to financial aid packages that contain scholarships that are only good for one year. Finally, be aware that your family’s financial situation may change, possibly altering—for better or for worse—your financial need calculations.

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