Today’s adventure was to drive to Grand Valley State University with Mrs ERJ and fill out “paperwork” for FAFSA. FAFSA is the on-line, Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
FAFSA is a mandatory monopoly. You really don’t have a choice in the matter. Your kid cannot even apply for student loans without a current FAFSA on file.
We had been through five years of FAFSA with our oldest child. The entire system is hostile to users. I heartily dislike this task.
I was pleasantly surprised to find it easier this year than in, say, 2008. There were more drop-down message boxes and there were “by-passes” that kept us out of some messy areas.
There are certain assets that are “hidden” from the financial aid system by law. For example, the equity in your house, assets in IRAs and 401-k type retirement plans. In 2008 we were required to list everything, down to the dollar, under penalty of perjury. In 2015 we were told to estimate our assets, less those categories. Then, if the amount was less than $48,000 we were not required to list a single item…we were under the limit. Much, much easier and far less stressful.
Most Universities tell you that early FAFSA application increases your chances of financial aid. They make it sound like a kettle of porridge. First come first serve. And you are SOL after the kettle is empty and you have not been served.
The recommended cutoff date is well before one must file for taxes, which is where most of the information comes from.
They do allow estimates, generally the income and taxes you reported on income from two years ago. That is, you apply for aid during the 2015-2016 college year based on 2013 income. That is problematic because Mrs ERJ and I are both retired and 2012/2013 will be our lifetime earning high-water mark.
It was worth the drive
The people in the financial aid office were helpful. They showed us a branch in the program where we could override the 2013 information with more accurate 2014 information.
The people in the financial aid office also told us where we could safely ignore the verbiage. There were several places in the override where the word “estimate” was left out of the directions. I was tearing my hair out…I would not be in the estimating branch if I had those values! Also, the software tries to be helpful and identify the lines on the various 1040 forms where specific values can be found. That does not work very well when one is attempting to stitch together a quilt from 2013 forms (line numbers must change year-to-year) and shreds of 2014 information.
They advised us to make our best estimates and to update our FAFSA as soon as the “official” numbers are available. Filling out the application was still a PITA and still stressful. But it was a great relief to have an "expert" say, "Yeah, that question was very poorly written. You need to put blah-blah-blah on that line."