You’ve researched colleges with your child. You’ve visited campuses together and met with admissions counselors. You’ve also helped your child register for entrance exams, edit essays and submit enrollment applications.
But, wait – have you forgotten something?
Before your child begins comparing offers and considering which college to attend, your family should take time to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Created by the U.S. Department of Education, FAFSA is a form that determines students’ eligibility for financial aid. By completing the form, prospective and current college students learn whether they qualify for grants, loans and other types of financial assistance.
But, while submitting FAFSA doesn’t guarantee that students will receive financial aid, it does increase their chances. And that’s significant, given the more than $150 billion available to help cover students’ college costs.
To increase your child’s chances of receiving financial assistance – and guide you through an important part of his or her college application process – Baltimore County Public Schools high school counseling departments offer their top five tips for filing FAFSA.
- Verify the website
Before entering your information online, confirm that you have visited the correct website. If you’re unsure whether you’re viewing the official FAFSA form, Londyn Rollins, school counseling department chair at New Town High, suggests looking for two key indicators.
“FAFSA is free, so if a website asks you to pay to fill it out, you’re not dealing with the official FAFSA site,” she says about the first indicator. “[Also,] remember, FAFSA comes from the government, so it’s on a .gov website.”
- File early
Once you have verified the website, be sure to submit the application early. Ellen Fitzkee, school counseling department chair at Hereford High, stresses that families must complete the form “in its entirety” before their students can receive aid from colleges’ limited pools of funds.
“[E]ach school has a pool of money that it can use to give out student aid,” she says. “Once the pool of money is used up, regardless of whether you qualify for federal student aid, you will not receive it.”
While some loans, scholarships and work-study funds come from those limited pools of money that Fitzkee mentioned, she notes that Pell grants, given to students with financial need, do not.
“The exception… is the Pell grant,” says Fitzkee. “If you qualify for this, it should be the same amount for each school that sent you an award letter.”
Though Pell grants might look like an opportunity to put off filing FAFSA, Fitzkee is quick to point out another benefit of submitting the application early.
“Some schools that give out merit-based money still require the form to be filed for you to receive their free money,” she says. “Every school is a little different, so don’t take the chance of losing free money that you would have received, even though you didn’t qualify for federal student aid.”
To learn about available merit-based funds, call a college’s financial aid office or visit its website.
- Consider local colleges
When filing FAFSA for the first time, your child must identify to which colleges he or she has applied. By providing this information, your child allows the schools to create financial aid packages based on the data that your family enters into the form. Since many students select colleges by comparing financial aid packages, Amy Jubb, school counseling department chair at Sparrows Point High, offers advice on maximizing those offers.
The first piece of advice is for students who still are or will be applying to colleges.
“Even if you plan on applying to out-of-state colleges, still pick and apply to a Maryland college as a backup,” says Jubb. “Otherwise, if you end up staying in-state but didn’t list any state schools, you can miss out on state monies.”
Although state funds will not transfer if your child decides to attend an out-of-state college, Jubb’s second piece of advice can help students who plan to stay local as well as those who intend to travel.
“[W]hen you list the colleges that you are applying to on FAFSA,” she says, “list the most expensive school first.”
Why? It could affect your child’s eligibility for institutional aid, funds that schools provide directly to their prospective students.
To determine tuition, room and board, and other costs for attending each college to which your child applied, visit the schools’ admissions and/or financial aid Web pages.
- Attend FAFSA-related events
You’ve probably heard that BCPS high schools often host college and financial planning nights. But did you know that there are events and programs specifically for helping families file FAFSA?
Andrea Tavernia, school counseling chair at Western School for Technology and Environmental Science, encourages families to look for these offerings and take advantage of the services that they provide.
“[A]ttend events, such as College Goal Sunday and other programs,” she says. “[Through these events,] trained financial aid professionals can sit down with [your family] and help [you] fill out FAFSA.”
As one of the programs that Tavernia recommends, Maryland’s chapter of College Goal Sunday will hold FAFSA completion events through the beginning of March. For a list of locations as well as information about registration, click here.
- Explore available resources
Unless you already have experience with it, Tavernia is right: “Financial aid is complicated and can be confusing for students and families.”
Fortunately, there are several online resources that families can use to make applying a little easier:
- The BCPS video tutorial for filing FAFSA: Available here, this video guides viewers through each step of the application, including creating an account, entering information into the form and more.
- FAFSA4caster: If you want to plan ahead, this tool estimates your child’s eligibility for federal student aid. For an idea of how much financial assistance to expect, click here.
- Net Price Calculator: Once you have an estimate of your child’s financial aid eligibility, the College Board’s Net Price Calculator can help your family determine any remaining college costs. To use the calculator, click here and then search for your child’s college(s) in the list of participating schools.
- College Scorecard: Similar to the Net Price Calculator, College Scorecard, available here, lets families compare costs between schools. College Scorecard includes some local schools, such as Towson and Stevenson universities, that the Net Price Calculator does not.
- Cappex: To supplement federal and state student aid, your child also can apply for merit-based scholarships by clicking here.
And, though online tools have a lot to offer, there’s another resource that families shouldn’t forget: BCPS school counselors.
“Make an appointment with your school counselor if you need some help getting started,” says Fitzkee about applying for financial aid.
Available by email and phone, BCPS school counselors are always willing to meet with students and their families to discuss college and financial planning.
After supporting your child through the college application process, you might think that all that’s left to do is wait for his or her admissions decisions. But, unless your family has filed FAFSA, that might not be the case.
Maryland’s state FAFSA deadline is March 1, but many colleges require prospective students to submit their forms even earlier. To help increase your child’s chances of receiving financial aid, don’t delay – make a plan to file FAFSA today!
For more information about FAFSA, visit www.fafsa.ed.gov.
Story by Blake Lubinski, Department of Communications and Community Outreach.