Saturday, October 28, 2017

You Hafta FAFSA, Whether You Want To Or Not

I spent a significant chunk of yesterday filling out a FAFSA.

For those of you fortunate enough not to recognize that acronym immediately, that’s the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – it’s the form you have to fill out in order to get money for college.  You have to fill it out even if you are not likely to get any federal student aid, since scholarships, states, and colleges all use that information for their own purposes.

They don’t make this particularly easy, mind you.  Filling out a FAFSA – even if, as is the case for me, advising students on how to do it is literally part of your job – is a cumbersome and frustrating affair.  The full manual for it (which you can get online) runs to about 65 pages and manages to be completely detailed and yet still somehow uninformative (what counts as an asset again?), which is a neat trick.  So you bludgeon your way through it and hope for the best.

I suspect that’s part of the process, weeding out the unmotivated.  “If we make this sufficiently cumbersome, a lot of people won’t ask us for money at all!”  It’s the same philosophy that big box stores use when it comes to giving you rebates on the products they sell.

I thought about all that a lot while I was filling it out.  We’re kind of in that uncomfortable space where we probably make too much money to get much in the way of financial aid but not so much money as to be able to actually afford to send our kids to college without it.  It turns out that working in the university system is actually pretty poor financial planning that way.  Who knew?

But Tabitha is eagerly looking forward to higher education and we’re going to do whatever we can to make that happen.  So: FAFSA.

I learned a few things.

First, if you have been diligent about saving money for your child’s college education, this will be held against you.  That comes under “parental assets” and will decrease the amount of need-based financial aid you will receive.  I’m kind of glad we went to visit our friends in Europe now, since that money went toward experiences that were both fun and, in their ways, educational, and can’t be used to diminish any aid we receive.

Second, there is a lovely little feature called the IRS Data Retrieval Tool that allows you to switch over to the IRS computers and have your tax information entered automatically into your FAFSA, thus saving you the immense paperwork that happens when your manually entered tax information contains a typo of any kind – trust me, having watched students go through the verification process, I understand far better how sausages are made.  Unfortunately, if you are on the IRS’s “Someone Tried to Steal Your ID” list – a large and growing list these days – you can’t use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.  This was an unwelcome discovery.

Third, they want to know where you’re going to send this information.  This makes sense, but there are just so many code numbers the human mind can handle and after a while you begin to wonder if it would be easier to send your FAFSA to every university in the country.  And this is why they limit you to ten. 

But it’s in and we’ll see how it goes for now.

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