As the product of divorced parents and the first in his family to apply to college, Andrew Reichert knows how difficult applying to school can be, with a separate process for admissions and financial aid. Despite the complexities of filling out essays and forms, one of the most difficult hurdles he faced when applying was correctly filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the (FAFSA).
In order to help students who struggle just as he did, Reichert now serves as CEO and founder of Go Financial Aid, an advanced technology and personalized consulting company that offers free information online to help educate students on the entire financial aid process.
“Applying for financial aid is just as much an art as it is a science,” Reichert tells BET.com. “There are some key intricacies to the applications that you should know, or else be prepared to pay the price of a significantly reduced financial aid package.”
With the FAFSA deadline of some schools as early as February 1, Go Financial Aid shares the following tips with BET.com to help ensure optimization of your financial aid eligibility:
1) Fill Out a Practice FAFSA
A practice FAFSA is a great way for you to learn the ins and outs of the actual application. You can get an early start on the process by gathering your documents and filling out the 2012-2013 FAFSA Worksheet and asking any questions that you may have beforehand.
2) Reduce Your Family’s Adjusted Gross Income
Generally speaking, the higher your family’s Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), the less financial aid for which you will be eligible. Remember: Adjusted Gross Income = Income – Adjustments. Given this calculation, unless you want to decrease your income (not recommended), the best thing to do would be to increase your adjustments. Get a good accountant or a tax advisor to help you through the process.
3) Get Rid of All Your Liquid Assets (Intelligently!)
The FAFSA’s formula for determining your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) heavily weighs the most liquid assets in your family, such as cash, savings and checking accounts. Accordingly, it would be wise for you to minimize these liquid assets prior to filing your FAFSA. One way of doing this would be to give all of your money away (not recommended); however, a more intelligent way would be to shift your assets or pay off large debt balances (such as a mortgage).
4) Leave No Entry Blank
Fairly self-explanatory. Leave nothing blank. If the answer is $0 or is not applicable, make sure that you put a 0 in the blank. This is primarily a tip for students filling out a Paper FAFSA, since the online version will ensure that you fill in each answer. Bonus tip: Use the online version!
5) Apply Early (January)
This is where we get the most push-back. People don’t seem to like the idea of spending New Year's Day filing their FAFSA application (imagine that), but it’s truly a great idea. January 1 is the first day that the U.S. Department of Education will let you file your FAFSA. Since lots of financial aid is given on a first-come-first-served basis, it only makes sense you get it submitted as early as possible.
After you’re done with the FAFSA, apply for financial aid that matches your demographic profile, such as minority financial aid, or even financial aid that is dedicated to your intended major.
6) Timing Is Critical
The very first thing to keep in mind when evaluating your financial need for school is that financial aid officers are primarily concerned with your income starting January 1 of the student’s junior year in high school — the “base year” (in our case, 2011). It is very important to make sure your income and assets are as low as possible during the base year. You need to consider how to reposition your assets in order to make yourself eligible for the most aid possible.
Make Your Assets Work for You
In order to make the most of your money, you need to find smart places to “hide” your reportable assets. Were you thinking about buying a new car in the next few years? Do you need a great excuse to go on vacation early? In order to save the most, seriously consider making large purchases during the fiscal year preceding the FAFSA deadline. The strategy here is to use your assets that you report on the FAFSA (e.g. cash and checking accounts), in order to pay for assets you do not report on the FAFSA (e.g. a new car or a week in Hawaii).
7) Title Accounts in the Parents' Name
Considering opening a bank account for your child’s education? Make sure you open it in your name and not your child’s. On the FAFSA, parents’ assets are protected in two ways that student’s are not:
1. Parents’ assets are protected by the education savings and asset protection allowance.
2. For 2012-13, parents’ asset conversion rate was eight percent lower than that for students. This means that by having an asset in your name and not your child’s, you are automatically saving at least eight percent.
Let’s say you are a 39-year-old parent (one of two parents) about to open a $5,000 bank account for your child’s education. You were going to put it in their name as a graduation present until you read this article and decided to put the account in your name. How much did you save following this simple tip? All else equal, you saved approximately $914!
For more tips on the financial aid process visit GoFinancialAid.com.
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