Category Archives: Need-based Aid

FAFSA Verification

Every year, about 1/3 of FAFSAs filed are selected for validation, which could be described as FAFSA’s version of an audit. Some FAFSAs are chosen at random for verification, whereas some schools– especially those funding need-based aid out of an endowment– will verify every application. Because verification goes through the school, it’s not unusual for students to first learn about their verification status when they receive an acceptance and financial aid award. Being selected for verification does not typically mean that you’ve done anything wrong, just that you need to provide additional information.

If you are selected for verification, you’ll either see note on your SAR requesting additional documents, or you’ll be contacted by your school, or both. Because some documentation requires time to gather, it’s important to get on this right away if it applies to you. For example, you may be required to submit an IRS transcript of your tax return.

One big issue with verification is that it places a disproportionate burden on lower-income students, since about half of Pell Grant-eligible students will be selected for verification, and this burden has been shown to reduce college attendance– a recent study showed that more than 20% of these students do not complete the verification process, thus denying them access to the Pell Grant (and any other Title VI financial aid). At the same time, a study by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators showed that verification wasn’t effective at rooting out cheaters and in fact served primarily as a deterrent to students: 84% of verified students overall had no change to their EFC or a change too insignificant to impact their Pell Grant award; among students attending two-year schools that increased to 91%.

What to do if you’re selected? Get on it, ASAP. Sometimes the schools simply request documents that you’ll have on hand, but often they want to see your tax return transcript. Here are the Department of Education’s instructions on verification, as well as more details on how IRS DRT and tax return transcripts are handled.

 

Waitlisted?

Students who are waitlisted at their top-choice school should understand how waitlists work, because they can a little bit like Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”

Here is a great article explaining how waitlists work. The key takeaway from a money perspective: Waitlists tend to be “need-aware” so waitlisted students who require financial aid to attend should instead focus on the schools at which they’re already accepted. Remember that in addition to the likely lower aid package, you will have to pay a nonrefundable deposit– typically in the $500-$1000 range– at your backup school to retain your spot there since waitlisted students typically are not notified of their acceptance until after May 1. 

Coalition App

If you’ve never heard of the Coalition App, count yourself among the many. The Coalition App is similar to the Common App in many respects, including allowing students to create a single application for multiple colleges, but it has some key differences. First and foremost is that the Coalition Application was created by the Coalition for College Access, a group of 140+ (and growing) colleges that “is committed to making college a reality for all high school students through our set of free online college planning tools that helps Continue reading Coalition App

Planning for All Four (or More) Years

A friend whose son is my twins’ age was surprised recently when I told her some of the colleges my daughter was applying to. She thought they seemed unlikely choices given my constant messaging of finding affordable schools. Her son was interested in some of the same ones and the net prices they found were quite high. The answer: we have the benefit of two children in college all four years. That means our EFC gets divided between then and in many cases, this yielded lower likely net costs. Good news for my Continue reading Planning for All Four (or More) Years

College Prep by Grade

I gave a financial aid talk to college and career center volunteers at our high school recently. One question stood out: “This is a lot of information to absorb at once. Can you break it down into some specific suggestions by grade?” Two ideas are important here: College planning is a process that should start well before senior year, and there are things that can be done at any point to make things go more smoothly when the time comes to start applying. So here goes. Continue reading College Prep by Grade

Why File the FAFSA?

Every year, a large percentage of the eligible population fails to file a FAFSA: the Department of Education estimates 40% of high school seniors do not file it and 25% of college students do not renew their FAFSA. And yet, there are plenty of compelling reasons to do so. The obvious one is access to financial aid. Here are some other reasons: Continue reading Why File the FAFSA?

Special Circumstances

Special circumstances refers to anything in the applicant’s financial situation that is not reflected on the FAFSA or CSS Profile. The Profile has an actual space for applicants to detail special circumstances. For FAFSA schools, applicants may have to appeal their aid award and go through the Professional Judgment (PJ) process. If this might apply to you, you should understand the decision-making criteria and process so that special circumstances you’re detailing are in fact special circumstances in the financial aid world. Continue reading Special Circumstances

FAFSA for Divorced Parents

This is a big topic so for today I’m going to focus on general rules. Keep in mind the FAFSA rules are different from the CSS Profile rules; below is FAFSA only.

The custodial parent for the FAFSA can be different than the custodial parent in the divorce decree and/or different from who claims the student as a dependent on their tax return. The FAFSA defines the custodial parent as “The parent that you lived with most Continue reading FAFSA for Divorced Parents