From Susan Chadwick
As a new season of financial aid applications begins, my phone starts to ring. Suddenly, there are questions about changes in income, how retirement should be reported on the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student), and what an FSA ID is used for in the process. While financial aid applications can appear daunting at times, there are many tips and tricks that can help you along the way.
Here are my top tips to successfully navigate the FAFSA and CSS Profile, College Board’s application used by many schools, including Bryn Mawr, to apply for institutional need-based aid.
- Know your deadlines! When are all these forms due? For Bryn Mawr, financial aid applications are due the same day as admission applications for prospective students. For current students, the deadline is April 15, 2019 – but the sooner all the items are submitted, the quicker you will receive your financial aid award. Sooner is always better than later!
- Make a list of what is required. Not sure what we need? Bryn Mawr requires four main items for a financial aid application: the FAFSA (for US citizens and permanent residents), CSS Profile (all students), 2017 Federal Tax Return with schedules, and W2s. There may be a few additional items we need, but if this applies to you we’ll let you know through BiONiC, the Bryn Mawr student portal. You will receive information about BiONiC once you start an application to Bryn Mawr.
- Create your FSA ID. Before you can complete the FAFSA, you need to create an FSA ID. This is a username and password that will be used to file and sign your FAFSA, as well as complete federal paperwork for student loans. The student AND at least one parent need to create an individual FSA ID tied to their personal information. Each FSA ID will be linked to your legal name, birth date, and social security number. You will also need a personal email address. DO NOT use an email address linked to your high school! You will use this username and email for the next four years (possibly longer if you attend graduate school), and if you lose access to your high school email address after graduation it is extremely difficulty to reset your password should you need to do so.
- Use the correct legal name and social security number. This one sounds easy, but it trips up more people than you might think. It is important that you report your legal name exactly as it appears on your social security card. This includes things like hyphenation. If you do not, it will cause a big problem. If your parent(s) do not have a social security number, use all zeroes or use their tax payer ID. Do not make up a number. If you make a typo on your social security number, you will not be able to correct this information. You will need to fill out an entirely new application.
- Have your tax returns ready. Ready to fill out the FAFSA and/or the CSS Profile? Having your tax return next to you while completing the forms is CRITICAL to success! On both forms, when you click in-field to type your answer, a helpful hint will appear on the side of your screen. This hint will tell you the exact line to reference on your tax return! Copy the numbers and you’re well on your way.
- Be consistent. Some of the questions on the CSS and FAFSA will ask for the same information. If you report conflicting information, there will be a delay in processing your financial aid application. Be sure that you use the same figure for your assets, particularly the figures for cash/savings and investments. Investments can be a pesky question for families when you are not sure what to include. Use those helpful hints on the application to get clarification.
- On the FAFSA, you do not report the value of retirement accounts such as a 401k, nor do you report the value of your primary residence.
- On the CSS Profile, home value and retirement account value will be asked in specific questions, it won’t be included in a large investment figure anywhere on the application.
- Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. On the FAFSA, there is a handy tool called the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, or DRT. This tool will allow you to auto-populate your FAFSA right from the information reported on your tax forms from the IRS! Not only will this make filling out the application much easier for you, it also helps the financial aid office to guarantee the accuracy of your application. Another perk? One-third of FAFSAs are selected for a process called Federal Verification. This means the school must collect a little more information from your family to verify that every data field on your FAFSA is correct. By using the DRT, you are less likely to be randomly selected for this process!
- Don’t leave fields blank. Leaving fields blank may cause an error or a delay in processing your application. If there is no amount to report, add a zero to ensure clarity and accuracy.
- Do not use commas or decimal points. Round to the nearest whole number. If you try to use decimal points, both forms are going to add extra zeroes, significantly inflating your income and/or assets!
- Use 2017 income information. You read that correctly. Using 2017 income information allows families to complete the forms earlier and with finalized information, which gives institutions more time to get families accurate financial aid awards in the spring. If you feel 2017 is not an accurate reflection of your family’s financial situation (ex., someone lost a job in early 2018, or there was a one-time bonus or other income inflation in 2017), contact the Financial Aid Office. We will ask for documentation of the change along with your 2018 tax return and W2s when they are complete to see if we are able to make an adjustment.
- Who to list on the FAFSA/CSS Profile. Are your biological parents divorced, and you’re not sure who should be listed on the FAFSA or CSS Profile? There’s a great infographic provided online to help you figure out who you should include on the FAFSA. If you split time between two separate households, you will only include the parent and siblings who you live with most of the time. For the CSS Profile, you will include information for all parents and step-parents, regardless of who you live with the majority of the time. If you split time between two households, you will fill out the CSS Profile with each parent.
Above all — ask for help! If I have one tip, this is it! We are here to help you and your family and hope if you have questions you will send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call at 610-526-5425. We are here to help answer your questions.