The race for financial aid dollars has begun. On January 1, 2010, the annual winter financial aid window swung open, during which key pieces of information must be submitted to the colleges and universities that college-aged children might attend next fall.  And parents must peer through that window with one essential form in their sights – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as “the FAFSA.”

The FAFSA helps colleges make decisions about how and to whom they award precious, need-based financial aid dollars.  More complicated than the federal income tax form, the 2010-2011 federal student aid application asks as many as 130 income, asset, and dependency questions depending on a student’s status. States, colleges, and the federal government use the information to try to distribute this year’s estimated $145 billion in student aid equitably. While a new “skip logic” has been introduced, shortening the form for some low-income families, as a practical matter for most families there is little change in this year’s application compared with last year’s form.  

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.  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.

There are several myths that 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.

Students and their parents may choose to complete the FAFSA themselves, but they should be careful not to make errors that the Department of Education’s computer does not find, resulting in  less aid than they are entitled to. Unfortunately, mistakes on the FAFSA are common and students can lose out on aid they are eligible to receive. To help families deal with the application’s complexity, the government allows students the option of getting professional help.

With the continuing weak economy, and so many public universities hiking tuitions in response to recent state budget cuts, more college students are expected  to be seeking financial aid in the coming year.  Since some schools make aid decisions through a largely first-come, first-served process, and some school deadlines are as early as February 15, students and their parents should not delay in completing a FAFSA at

To learn more about College Parents of America, you may visit the organization’s website at