Ladies and gentlemen, please start submitting your FAFSAs.

The race for financial aid dollars begins early each calendar year, during a short winter window when key pieces of information must be submitted to the colleges and universities that your child might attend next fall.

And you must approach the starting blocks with one essential form in your sights – the FAFSA.

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Developed by the U.S. Department of Education in the mid-1990s, the FAFSA is intended to help level the playing field in helping schools to make decisions about how and to whom they award precious, need-based financial aid dollars.

This leveling occurs because the FAFSA allows for an evaluation of family financial circumstances that is consistent and equitable.

Underlying that evaluation are two key assumptions:

  1. Parents have the primary responsibility to pay for their dependent child(ren)’s education; and
  2. College students also have a responsibility to pay for a reasonable portion of their educational expenses.

This next edition of the FAFSA will be issued on January 1, 2007 and will be available online at www.fafsa.ed.gov or via hard copy. Filing online is highly recommended for both speed of transmission and accuracy of information. However, if you do choose hard copy, then forms should be available, in the case of high school seniors, at the school’s guidance counseling office; or, in the case of returning college students, at the college or university’s financial aid office.

If you are the parent of a student who is a high school junior or younger, then you don’t have to worry about filling out a FAFSA. . .yet.

However, if you are the parent of a current high school senior – or a current college student – and you hope for your child to receive any form of financial aid, then you as a family MUST submit the FAFSA, and you should try to do it as soon as possible in the New Year, perhaps in parallel with the preparation of your 2006 income tax returns.

You should be aware that myths abound when it comes to financial aid. These myths include:

  • Only students with high GPAs get all the aid:
  • Only extremely needy students can receive financial aid, so if your family income is high, then don’t bother to apply; and
  • If your older son or daughter didn’t qualify for aid, then neither will your other children.

The facts are the vast majority of financial aid dollars go, as they should, to those who truly need the money. Yes, merit dollars are available, but only at some schools, and in fairly limited quantity. It is true that merit dollars are growing more quickly than need-based funding, but the most selective schools in particular have more than their share of deserving – and high-achieving – applicants, so they have adopted a “need-blind” policy that awards financial aid dollars to any student who is able to achieve acceptance.

And the facts are that financial aid does not just mean scholarships. As a term of art, financial aid refers to money to help pay for college that is awarded, paid in return for work-study, or loaned with the full faith and backing of the U.S. government.

If you want your child to be eligible for any or all of these three types of financial aid, then you must complete and submit the FAFSA as soon as possible.

While deadlines vary from school to school, no school will award a penny of need-based aid unless and until the FAFSA has been reviewed and analyzed by the U.S. Department of Education and by the school’s financial aid office. In fact, some schools require information beyond what is contained in the FAFSA, either on forms they have created themselves, or on a form called a PROFILE, that is provided by the College Scholarship Service, a unit of the The College Board. You should check with the college or university to see whether they require more than just a FAFSA.

Whether or not additional forms are required by a particular school, the basic application flow is pretty standard for all schools.

Sometime in January or February, you and your dependent student(s) should submit your FAFSA to the federal government and to as many as six schools where your son or daughter might be applying or returning. Once this is done, you and your child(ren) will first receive a Student Aid Report or SAR telling what your Expected Family Contribution or EFC is in the upcoming academic year.

While school prices can, of course, vary, the EFC should remain fairly constant across a selection of college and universities. The school will then match your child’s admission records with his or her financial aid application, and determine eligibility for aid, perhaps in conjunction with an admissions decision, but just as likely within a separate process.

An award letter will then be mailed to the student, either with a positive admissions decision or shortly on the heels thereafter. If a student is not admitted, then there is no need to speculate on what aid that he or she might have received.

The financial aid, in its various components, will likely be disbursed to you and your child in two parts, at the beginning of the fall and spring semesters, respectively. In most instances, the money will be sent directly to the school, thereby defraying your and your child’s out-of-pocket expenses.

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