Just before tax season comes the opportunity for college-bound students to apply for monetary assistance via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The program collects and sends financial data to colleges that use it to award need-based financial aid to students.
Filing a FAFSA was once daunting, according to Pam Rambo, a former college financial aid and admissions professional who now works as a researcher for families and students looking to maximize their financial aid opportunities.
"It's much easier now than it has ever been," she said. "Maybe 30 minutes."
Rambo, who is based in James City County, said the most frequent mistake parents make is waiting until after they have completed their tax returns to submit the form. It's one of those rare occasions when "it's actually better to be on time than accurate," she said.
"I don't mean that you should be inaccurate," Rambo stressed. "You should file early even if you have to estimate (your tax information). Then file your taxes as early as you can, and then make your corrections. That should be easy to do."
Some families don't know they can actually file the FAFSA retroactively, Rambo said. The final deadline each year is June 30 – for the previous academic year. Colleges may have other deadlines, Rambo said, which can range from mid-February to early March. Applying sooner than later is also important because schools only have a finite amount of financial aid available.
"If you apply too late, the money all could be given out," Rambo said.
Ed Irish, director of financial aid at the College of William and Mary, offered important notes for filing correctly:
• Both the student and the parent should sign up through FAFSA's online starting place, fafsa.ed.gov, for a user identification number and password that will allow them to file and sign the form electronically.
• If you are a parent filling out the paperwork on behalf of a student, be sure to use the student's Social Security number. Using the parent's number "will create all sorts of problems, because there will be a mismatch in the system," Irish said. "It can be corrected, it will just slow down the process."
• Know the individual financial aid deadlines for each school to which a student wishes to apply.
• Also know that some colleges – among them William and Mary and the University of Virginia – require an additional financial aid form, the "Profile" form administered by the College Board. According to the College Board website, Feb. 14 is the deadline to submit a Profile form for the 2013-14 school year.
Irish urged students to file a FAFSA even if they suspect they might not be eligible for financial aid.
"You're going to need it as a minimum for student loans," he said. "If there's any chance you're not going to have the resources, complete the FAFSA."
Susan Mickens of West Point, who has one son attending community college and another who will graduate high school in June, described the FAFSA as a user-friendly process that parents should be able to complete on their own. Still, she said, she worked with Rambo because "there's a learning curve, and when you're talking about college, making a mistake is money lost."
"It was very scary going into the process. It's something that we don't do often," Mickens said. "Sometimes we have a preconceived notion of the process being very complicated, when in fact it truly isn't."
Darla Krupski, a Yorktown mother whose son is a sophomore at William and Mary, said "FAFSA has kind of a bad name, but it's not that they don't want to help." It's just that there are so many people applying for financial assistance.
Krupski said she found it helpful to work with a consultant, especially since she and her son have what qualifies as special circumstances. Krupski, who is separated, has been under-employed since she was laid off from her full time job three years ago, and her son has a health condition requiring expensive medications. From Rambo, Krupski learned about the "special circumstances" addendum to the FAFSA.