The Free Application for Federal Student Aid FAFSA is the primary portal by which nearly every
family must enter. Notice the words, because in the title is the first, and most common mistake. It is a free application, it is not an application for free financial aid.
In fact, the most common form of financial aid offered through FAFSA is a loan. The U.S. Department of Education reports $1.5 trillion (put 11 zeroes after that 5) in outstanding education loans. Below are examples of other, commonly made errors in completing the form.
- We already covered the first mistake above. It is a free application, it is not an application for free financial aid.
- Year Applied for: if you go to the FAFSA website now, and begin as a new applicant, it will ask for which year you are applying: 2020-2021, or 2021-2022. Current high school seniors are applying for 2021-2022.
- Social Security Number: don't guess! Know for sure, and double check you entered each one correctly; student SS#, and parent(s). Why the parenthesis? See subsequent bullet points below. FAFSA automatically sends the social security information to Social Security Administration to verify that there is such a number, and that the number is attached to the name submitted. There is an opportunity to correct an error, but it takes time.
- Student or Parent: The person creating the new application is asked to identify as the student or a parent. It does not matter which, but remember whose information you are providing. Both the student and the parent(s) are asked identical, personal questions. For example, "Are you married? Are you a military veteran?", etc. A common mistake is for the student to assume the question asks about his/her parent(s). Check the section of the application. You will see a tab labeled STUDENT, or a tab labeled PARENT. Remember which section you are completing. Also, since the U.S. Supreme Court' ruling on same-sex marriage, the FAFSA form changed from "Father, Mother" to "Parent 1, Parent 2." Keep track of which you list as #1, and #2. It will matter later.
- Divorced or a Widow/Widower: Are you divorced from your child's other parent? Are you legally separated? Did your spouse pass away? If you have not remarried, there is only one (1) parent as far as FAFSA is concerned. The point of confusion, with so many divorces in the USA, is a student living with her mom (for example) will list mom as Parent 1, and then the divorced father as Parent 2. Don't! Not for FAFSA. Have you remarried? Keep reading.
- Remarriage: when you remarried your new husband, or new wife just signed on to help pay for the college education of all the children from your first marriage. That spouse should be listed as Parent 2. Sorry, but that's the way the rules are written.
- Tax Returns: Prior-Prior-Year was inaugurated during the Presidency of Barack Obama. That is when the first filing date was moved up from January 1 to the previous October 1. The easiest way to remember is this: You are completing FAFSA in the Fall of the Year. Which is the most recent tax return you were supposed to have filed earlier that year, by April 15? For example, you are completing FAFSA in December, 2020. Your student plans to enter college Fall Semester, 2021. The tax return FAFSA wants is 2019. (Start college 2021; tax return from prior-prior year is 2019.) FAFSA uses the Data Retrieval Tool to make it simple. Click to allow the DRT. There will be double verification requested. The appropriate tax return is uploaded, and you are returned to FAFSA.
- Login and Save Code: write down (somewhere you can find it easily) the usernames and passwords you create; and the save code, too. You will need them repeatedly, now and in future years.
One reason students don't receive all the financial aid they could is due to mistakes on their FAFSA. FAFSA with errors are returned for correction. Meanwhile, financial aid is being handed out, first-come, first-served.
Why do colleges send "Spring Semester Acceptance" letters?
Are you familiar with the phrase "hedging your bets"? It describes a strategy whereby you reduce your risk of loss. You bet on more than one winning option, and reduce your chance of total loss.
By offering some students Spring semester, rather than Fall semester admission, colleges are hedging their bets.
Colleges seek to fill every seat in the new, first-year cohort. Some of those students, a few, will drop-out, flunk-out, die (horrible thought); for whatever reason, create vacancies for the Spring semester. Colleges are not guessing, but rather forecasting based on decades of records.
A Fall semester drop-out represents a loss of revenue in the Spring. A Spring admit solves that problem.
Stats every college keeps them; and every college has to report them. The statistics in focus for this discussion are retention rates and graduation rates.
Both datum are required to be kept only on first year, Fall admits. Therefore, transfer students and Spring admits are not considered.
Spring admits are students who, by the college's reckoning, are less-well qualified academically and, therefore, more likely to leave the school short of graduation.
Your student has received a Letter of Acceptance, but for the Spring and not the expected, Fall semester. What does that mean?
Your student is considered marginally qualified as a scholar for the college's academic rigor. In plain English, the college thinks they may be too hard for your kid. If you have other acceptance letters for the upcoming Fall semester, those options should be strongly considered.
Your student will receive little or no financial aid, beyond what the family qualifies for based on financial need. The "scholarships" will have been given out to the Fall class. Even some federal dollars may be in short supply until the following Fall semester. That may be made up with financial aid in the form of loans (not really aid, but considered aid in the game of higher education).
Most important, in this author's opinion, is the dilemma of what your student will do from June until the end of January. Students enrolling in a community college should check with the four-year school as to how those credits will be handled. Will your child now become a transfer student? Historically, that further impacts financial aid offered. Work? A great option, especially if your students saves most of the money for college expenses.
Finally, and related to that last fact of what to do with the time, it is highly likely your student will not find the transition to be smooth. There are so many things shaping a student's experience of Fall semester admissions that simply cannot be replicated for the Spring admit. I am not speculating, but rather relating the experience of the few students I know who went ahead with a Spring semester matriculation.
Bottom line: decline Spring admission. Your child has better options.
Want to know the top 5 mistakes to avoid when sending your student to college? Be sure to grab your copy of our free download by clicking the button below!
Is there a scholarship awarded with your Letter of Acceptance?
Students who submitted college applications weeks ago are receiving Letters of Acceptance already. Those affirmations make everyone happy. Congratulations!
It is not uncommon, not at all, for a scholarship to be awarded along with the acceptance letter. That is also a good thing and, again, congrats.
What is it not, however?
It is not truly a scholarship as much as it is a discount off of the price. In other words, no money will ever exchange hands. The college is just offering to charge you less.
It is possible the scholarship is for only the first year; not renewable for years two, three and four. Be sure to ask.
It is contingent. Contingencies include your senior year of high school grades, your personal deportment both in school and in your community (i.e. don't get busted for doing something stupid) and whether you commit by any deadlines mentioned in the letter.
Finally, and most important, it is not the final and formal offer of financial aid. That will come, typically, in late March/early April.
What is that scholarship then?
An enticement to commit before you hear from any other colleges.
Therefore, wait. Wait until at least the end of 2020. By then you will likely have heard from every college to which you applied. If, by then, there are schools from which you have no formal letter of acceptance (or denial of admission) call the school(s) and check on the status of your application.
That last thing reminds me to remind you to check NOW with every college on your list. Make certain they have every requirement in hand. Don't wait. Deadlines are hard stops in college admissions.
Is Community College a good option after high school?
You're going to hate me for this answer, but it is, in fact, "Yes and no."
- For students who are borderline academically qualified for college-level academics. The academic rigor of college is harder than of high school. Most four-year colleges demand more academically than most community colleges.
- For students who desire expressly to earn a technical certification and enter the job market from there. No one should consider that choice as lesser than attending a four-year college. It is simply a different choice. Every adult knows, once in the work force, job performance determines career advancement.
- For families who think it will save them money. If any money is saved, and that is a proposition easily challenged from the data, the amount saved is modest compared to what is missed.
- For students who think a community college will help them figure out what they want to major in, and what career they want to pursue (with the exception of a technical certification, as mentioned).
The original question (Is community college a good option?) reveals an underlying issue that parents and students should address. Why go to college?
- To find direction for life as an adult? At $25,000 per year (or more) those are expensive directions. Instead, consider getting a job and learning what it takes to earn $25,000 in a year. Enlist for military service and be trained in a career-quality skill, mature as a young adult and, upon completion of active duty feel a sense of accomplishment.
- Because that's what others are doing? That is seldom, if ever, a good reason for doing anything. To reiterate, get a job instead. Find out how hard your parents work to provide for your family. Save most of the money for college. Pay taxes. That's an education, too.
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- What Every Parent and Student Needs to Know About FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)
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- Navigating the Pathways of College Admissions and Financial Aid in 2021
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- 8 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Completing FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)
- Gear Up, Tenth Graders
- Apply for Fall, Get Spring Semester. Why do colleges send "Spring Semester Acceptance" letters?
- Why do colleges "Wait List" some students and what to do if you're on the wait list
- Is There a Scholarship Awarded With Your Letter of Acceptance?
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