Debunking 5 myths about college financial aid

For one thing, you need to fill out the FAFSA form — regardless of family income.

With three children in college, I’m very familiar with the financial-aid process. I’d rather get a root canal.

My husband and I saved just enough for them all to attend college without any debt for tuition, fees and room and board. Any extra money they’ve received in scholarships or grants helps stretch what we’ve saved to cover other college expenses.

But it wasn’t a painless process. Filling out the scholarship applications and the federal and state forms is, frankly, overwhelming.

Starting Oct. 1, the 2019/20 Free Application for Federal Student Aid form (FAFSA) becomes available. Whether your child will be applying for early admission to college or is a returning student, you need to make sure the form is completed as soon as possible. Procrastinating can cost you money.

With limited funds, it’s a first-come, first-served financial-aid world, folks. Those who file early get a better shot at receiving funds — both need- and merit-based.

Despite how daunting the process can be, I’m surprised that so many parents and students fail to file a FAFSA, believing it doesn’t matter. So, let’s debunk five myths that keep people from filing.

1. Our family makes too much money, so why bother? If you’re a middle-income or higher-earning household, it’s easy to dismiss the need to complete the FAFSA. I nearly did. Yet the form is not just for free federal money, such as the Pell Grant or work-study. To qualify for state, school and private scholarships, you may need to fill out the FAFSA.

Additionally, having multiple children attending college simultaneously can impact your expected family contribution or EFC, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president for savingforcollege.com. “The parent contribution portion of the EFC is divided by the number of children in college,” he said. “When the number of children in college increases from one to two, that’s almost like dividing parent income in half.”

2. My credit history is bad, so we won’t qualify for financial aid. There’s no credit check for most federal student loans.

3. Are you kidding? My kid’s grades are awful, so why bother applying? Your child will have to do well enough to stay in school, but he or she doesn’t have to be academically gifted to qualify for financial aid.

4. I don’t want my child to have loans, so why apply? Yes, for many people, the financial aid offered will come in the form of either subsidized or unsubsidized federal loans. While I’m always cautioning people about borrowing for college, the reality is many will need to do it. But your child could qualify for grants or work-study.

“More than 2 million students did not get a Federal Pell Grant even though they were eligible because they did not file the FAFSA,” Kantrowitz said.

If you’re going to borrow, you might as well see if you qualify for a direct subsidized loan. It’s offered to students who demonstrate need. The government pays the interest on the debt while the student is enrolled at least part-time or while the loan is in deferment.

Interest is not paid for unsubsidized loans. There is no requirement to demonstrate need for an unsubsidized loan.

“Everybody should file the FAFSA every year, even if they got nothing other than loans last year,” Kantrowitz said. “Congress tinkers with the financial aid formulas every year. Various tables have annual inflationary adjustments. The family’s financial circumstances may have changed. Even small changes in income and assets can have a big impact on the amount of financial aid.”

5. It’s just too much work. OK, this one is partly true. Although the official site for the FAFSA — fafsa.ed.gov — claims it’s a quick process, my family didn’t find that to be the case. Yet it wasn’t overly burdensome, especially considering the reward. Filling out the FAFSA isn’t hard. It’s just tedious.

In filling out the form, you’ll have to include earnings, which you can easily get through the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). The DRT allows you to import your tax information directly into the FAFSA form. But I had to go hunt for my tax return and W-2 anyway, because the tool doesn’t pull through all the information you’ll need.

Two of my children got merit aid because we filled out the FAFSA, and the other was offered unsubsidized loans. In the end, whatever time it took was well worth the effort.

— Washington Post Writers Group

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