This is the time of year when families have financial matters on their mind. During the IRS tax season, parents with college-aged children are also busy filing for financial aid to secure assistance in paying for the tuition bill for the upcoming academic year.
For the first time in recent memory, the federal process has changed in an attempt to offer simplification to an application that has often been perceived as lengthy and confusing.
This is the last year when waiting for W2s and income information may delay accurate financial aid filing. Beginning in the 2017-18 academic year, early FAFSA filing will allow more time for students to explore college options. All colleges require the Free Application for Federal Assistance (FAFSA), which determines eligibility for federal and state financial aid.
This online application is available at www.fafsa.gov, and as its name implies, is free to complete. Students and parents (if applicable) will first need to obtain an FSA ID that will be used as an electronic signature on the form. This FSA ID will be used throughout all years of college attendance. Families who previously obtained a federal PIN, must now replace the PIN with this new FSA ID. For the school year 2016-17, family income from 2015 will be reported.
There are a variety of financial aid programs available for those who qualify. To begin the process, find out the financial aid deadlines for each college you plan to apply to, which can vary from February 1 to the May 1 deadline for the Massachusetts State Scholarship program. The biggest mistake families will make during this process is missing deadlines, which will prevent them from receiving funds they otherwise would qualify to receive.
For the 2016-17 academic year, the FAFSA will gather information about the family’s previous year’s income. Many families wait until they file their federal income tax returns to simplify the completion of the FAFSA, but it is important to keep the financial aid deadlines in mind, as you may use estimated income information to meet the necessary filing date. Additionally, some colleges use the CSS Profile form and/or their own financial aid applications, so be sure to complete all necessary paperwork for each college on your list. Beginning with the 2017-18 academic year, the entire timeframe for FAFSA completion will begin earlier.
On October 1, 2016, the new FAFSA will become available, three months sooner than during earlier years. Starting with this application cycle, income from two years earlier will be reported, in this case, 2015 information, which should be available when you apply. This will help applicants use more accurate data from tax returns. When applying in January, many had to estimate income, since tax returns were not often filed that early in the year.
Once colleges receive the results of your financial aid submission, they use a standard eligibility formula to provide a financial aid package to applicants to meet the amount of the family’s demonstrated financial need. Although some merit awards are distributed by colleges, most aid programs are need-based and are designed to supplement the family’s contribution toward college expenses.
The philosophy of financial aid is to provide access to higher education to all families, however, keep in mind that all types of financial aid are not created equally. There are grants and scholarships that are “gift aid.” These are free money programs that do not have to be repaid. The majority of financial aid is known as “self-help,” which is comprised of student loans and work study programs.
When receiving financial aid packages from multiple colleges, be sure to look not only at the bottom line total, but at the type of aid offered, as some financial aid packages may be heavily weighted with loans. For students entering their freshman year of college, inquire about the renewability of any grants or scholarships, as students must reapply for financial aid for every year of college.
Many financial aid programs require students to maintain a certain grade point average for continued eligibility. When different student loans are offered, compare loan repayment terms and interest rates to obtain the best available loan. Federal subsidized loans are interest-free while the student is enrolled in school, and borrowers select among multiple repayment plans to fit their financial budget upon graduation. Take advantage of all of the available resources that are available to help you to apply for financial aid, including MWCC’s Financial Aid TV, which can be viewed online at http://mwcc.financialaidtv.com.
This library of brief videos provides useful, current information and tutorials for students and their families to help take the mystery out of paying for college. Whether you are considering attending the Mount, which is an affordable, quality education available locally, or setting your sights on enrolling elsewhere, you will find this content to be informative on a range of college financing topics.
Kelly Morrissey, Director of Financial Aid at Mount Wachusett Community College, has over 25 years of experience as a college financial aid officer and is currently president of the Eastern Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (EASFAA). She is past president of the Massachusetts Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and past chair of FAFSA Day Massachusetts, a volunteer-run statewide event that assists families with completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.