Navigating college financial aid forms

January 31, 2014 | Posted in: High School

It was just before Christmas when I got the call at work.

“Mom, I got in.” It was my senior daughter, and her voice filled with emotion as she relayed how she had learned online that she had “early action” acceptance – a non-binding decision – to her top college choice. She was excited and relieved and anxious, all at once. The news was a testament to her hard work, and it meant we could relax as she waited to hear from other colleges to which she had applied.

Relax, that is, until the reality of college costs gripped us.

“It will work out the way it’s meant to work out,” I said, though my stomach was in knots. While we knew this day was coming, the acceptance letter made it real.

We were aware of the options that could help afford her dream, but standing between us and some of those options were two big and scary documents: FAFSA and CSS.

OK, maybe not big and scary; but for first-time college parents a bit overwhelming and seemingly intrusive.

FAFSA – or Free Application for Federal Student Aid – is a form all students must complete to be considered for any federal aid such as grants, scholarships, loans and work study.

The CSS/Financial Aid Profile – short for the College Scholarship Service Profile – is a financial aid application administered by the College Board. It’s used by approximately 300 private colleges and provides a more detailed look into the income and assets of a student and family. Unlike FAFSA, there is a fee associated with CSS. (For 2014, plan on a one-time $9 processing fee, and a $16 charge for each college to which the application is sent.) For more information on the CSS Profile, visit

If your child is applying to in-state colleges, fill out the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) application. There are income limits for TAP money, and the FAFSA form must be completed prior to filling out the TAP form. (Learn more about TAP.)

As with college applications, deadlines for applying for financial aid vary from school to school, which means it’s essential to be aware of the earliest date by which the form must be filed. Typically, deadlines fall from mid-January to March. Be sure to find out how a college of choice defines “deadline.” For some, it is the date your FAFSA is processed (which can take a few days from when you hit “submit”). For other colleges, it is the date they receive your information. (According to “The colleges you listed on your FAFSA will have access to your information electronically one day after it is processed.”)

It all starts with FAFSA

The first document you’ll need to fill out is the FAFSA form.

If you plan to apply online, sign up for a Federal Student Aid PIN at A Federal Student Aid PIN is a 4-digit numeric code or 6-digit alphabetic code that is uniquely assigned to an individual to access Federal Student Aid websites. It serves as an electronic signature, and both the student and parent should apply for their own individual PIN.

You should fill out the FAFSA application, even if you don’t think you’re eligible for federal aid. The form is necessary for federal student loans, which are available to any student regardless of need. In addition to determining your eligibility for federal funds to pay for college, the FAFSA enables colleges to determine your financial status and potentially offer a significant grant or scholarship.

“People are sometimes surprised at how much money they do get from the federal government,” said Maura Dargush, guidance counselor at Amsterdam High School. “They don’t think they qualify for anything, and they do. Plus, if a student is going to have a loan at some point, the interest rates on federal loans are a lot lower.”

Gather necessary paperwork prior to starting the process. You’ll need:

  • Social security number (parent and student)
  • Driver’s license number (parent and student)
  • Most recent federal tax return
  • Most recent W-2 or year-end pay stub (or 1099s, if self-employed)
  • Untaxed income records
  • Bank statements
  • Business and investment records
  • Alien registration card (if not a U.S. citizen)
  • The PIN you signed up for online

There is a renewal option that lets you prefill the application if you’ve filled one out before.

Be sure to check priority filling deadlines for your state as well as your college and/or university.

It’s OK to estimate. Use last year’s federal tax return if your financial status has not significantly changed, or use this year’s W-2s, 1099s or year-end pay stub. You can go back in once you have filed your 2013 taxes and use the IRS data retrieval tool. This is the fastest and easiest way to update your financial information once your taxes have been filed. (Please note: To use the IRS data retrieval system, you have to wait at least two weeks after you’ve filed your taxes electronically; 6-8 weeks if you filed a paper copy.).

Remember: Filing the FAFSA is free. While there are companies out there who will offer to help you for a fee, there are also plenty of resources to help you complete the application. The financial aid offices of many colleges can answer general questions for you, and many school districts host FAFSA nights to help parents and students navigate the forms.

Get going!

You will create a password to start the FAFSA application. If you can’t complete the form in one sitting, you can come back later and sign in to complete the form.

“Fill out the form as soon as possible,” said Rebecca Cozzocrea, financial aid at Fulton-Montgomery Community College in Johnstown. “You do have the ability to estimate information until your taxes are complete.”

Dargush said gathering information before sitting down to fill out the form can eliminate frustration. “It doesn’t take that long once you have all of your information together,” she said.

There’s no doubt the questions can feel a little invasive. But remember: “It’s a means to an end,” said Dargush. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The New York State Higher Education Services Corporation (NYS HESC) has a FAFSA hotline (1-800-808-1790) and its website is filled with helpful information

So, it’s Jan. 31 and you haven’t filled out your FAFSA. It is time to panic?

Rebecca Cozzocrea, coordinator of financial aid at Fulton Montgomery Community College in Johnstown, said the important thing is to meet the deadline.

“Schools pull FAFSAs in all at same time,” said Cozzocrea. “They will start putting together financial aid packages after the deadline.”

That being said, Cozzocrea said it’s better to file before the deadline so the application is processed by the deadline. “If you have a school with a March 1 deadline and file on March 1, priority will be given to those students who filed prior to March 1 and whose applications have been processed in the system,” she said.

If you hit a stumbling block, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone. Cozzocrea said most college financial aid offices can answer general questions about the FAFSA form. She also recommended checking with area school districts to see if any are holding sessions to guide parents through the FAFSA form.

And finally, remember you have to fill out the FAFSA every year. Don’t assume because you receive aid in one academic year that you’ll automatically receive it in the next. Be sure to review the application procedures and reapply each year as necessary.

Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since 2011. A former journalist in the Boston area, she is mom to two daughters, ages 17 and 15, and a 9-year-old son. She is relieved to have finished filling out the FAFSA and CSS Profile.

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