First Step for Financial Aid

You probably need financial help if you or your child wants a higher education: The current average cost for a year of college in the U.S. is about $27,000 and rising. Some in-state programs run below that; some private universities are as high as $60,000 per year. How do you start to find the money you need?

While you can use many different ways to fund college, one universal looms large: the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). June 30 is the annual deadline for filing a FAFSA.

The deadline for the 2014-2015 school year represents a key date for parents of high school seniors and college or graduate students; it also applies if you’re an adult student returning to the classroom. Completing the form is your first step toward getting federal aid for college (either a two-year or four-year program) and graduate school.

Some state aid programs work under even shorter deadlines. In Arkansas, where I live, filing for such state programs as the Academic Challenge and the Higher Education Opportunity Grant closed on June 1. Keep in mind, too, these are the final submission dates; many federal and state aid programs have limited resources and provide aid first-come, first-served.

Aside from the June deadlines for this year, many individual colleges have their own cutoffs – and limited resources – for financial aid. You need to complete the FAFSA much sooner than June 2015 to help pay for college that starts in the fall of next year (especially if the prospective student plans on applying for early acceptance).

Many myths surround the FAFSA, such as how even moderate income disqualifies a student. As the fact sheet from the Federal Student Aid website points out, income counts as only one factor in the overall determination formula. Among other misconceptions:

Hard to fill out. The online version of the form details instructions for every question and asks only the questions that apply to you. You can access real-time, private online chat for help or, if you fill out the paper FAFSA, get help from a high school guidance counsellor, financial aid office at your college of choice or from (800) 4-FED-AID.

Grades. A high grade-point average does help a student get into a good school and may help with academic scholarships. Most federal student aid programs don’t consider a student’s grades so much as “satisfactory academic progress.”

Age. Federal student aid is awarded based on financial need, not age. Adult students can get financial aid.

Only federal aid. FAFSA’s site links to state aid programs and to financial aid departments at individual schools.

One form covers all prospective students in a household. Everyone in your home facing the expenses of higher education needs to complete the FAFSA.

FAFSA also comes with a plus rare in this age of ever-increasing education costs. It’s free.

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Tim Long, CRPC, is a financial planner with Hutchinson Financial in Little Rock and Bentonville, Ark., and in Texarkana, Texas.

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