Expert FAFSA Completion Tips

Mary Johnson
Mary Johnson

Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a vital part of the college application process, but many students are intimidated by this form. To help shed some light on the issue, financial expert Mary Johnson agreed to answer a few common questions about completing the FAFSA for LoveToKnow College readers.

About Mary Johnson

Ms. Johnson is the financial literacy and consumer advocacy program manager for Higher One, a financial services company serving higher education institutions. She has more than 25 years of experience in higher education finance and is dedicated to teaching and promoting student financial literacy.

To find more helpful money management tips from Ms. Johnson, check out One For Your Money, the online financial literacy community that was ranked one of the "Top Ten Student Financial Literacy Resources on the Web" by CheapScholar.org. You can also follow her on Twitter @MoneyTalkMary.

Completing the FAFSA

LoveToKnow (LTK): When does the FAFSA need to be completed?

Mary Johnson (MJ): There are federal, state, and institution-specific deadlines that students should be aware of because they do vary. Most states require submission by March 1, with many even before that. Students can check on the federal FASFA website to find out their respective state deadline. Federal deadlines are much later, usually not until the end of the academic year. The best practice would be for students to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1 of the academic year that they plan to attend college, but not before.

LTK: Where should a student turn for help if he is having trouble completing the FAFSA?

MJ: Students should stay clear of services that charge fees for helping to complete the FAFSA. It is easy to mistake these sites for the actual free FASFA government website at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov, so students should make sure they are on the right website. There are a number of free resources to help students, including:

  • Step-by-step instructions on the official FAFSA website
  • Help from the Federal Student Aid Center available through a toll-free number at 1-800-4-FED-AID
  • College Goal Sunday websites and workshops
  • FinAid.org
  • State financial aid authorities or departments of higher education, which may have resources online
  • Institutional financial aid offices
  • Some high school guidance offices

Common FAFSA Questions

LTK: With the poor economy, many families are finding that their financial situation changes from month to month. What should a student do if income and asset information from the previous year doesn't accurately reflect her current financial situation?

MJ: Definitely talk to the financial aid officer at your current school or the school you are planning to attend. The FAFSA does not provide a place to explain special circumstances affecting families' or students' ability to pay. However, federal law does provide institutional financial aid administrators with an authority known as "Professional Judgment" to make adjustments to FAFSA data elements on a case-by-case basis for special circumstances. Any adjustments, of course, must be backed up with adequate documentation.

LTK: Do you have any specific tips for students with divorced parents in regards to the FAFSA? Is a separation considered the same as a divorce for the purpose of completing the FAFSA?

MJ: This can be a little complicated and confusing, but the federal government does not consider the income and assets of the non-custodial parent when determining a student's financial need. Many private colleges, however, do for purposes of allocating their own institutional aid. A great place to find out more is FinAid.org, which has a whole section devoted to divorced parents. Students also should confer with the financial aid office at the colleges where they are applying.

LTK: What should a student do if his parents will not or cannot provide the information that is needed to complete the FAFSA?

MJ: In order to be considered for federal student aid, a FAFSA must be completed. Many states [and organizations] provide free workshops to help students and families complete the FAFSA, including College Goal Sunday. Students also should contact the financial aid office of the college they plan to attend or are currently enrolled in for assistance.

LTK: If a student is living with someone other than a parent, does this person's financial information need to be provided to complete the FAFSA? Are foster parents and legal guardians considered parents for the purposes of completing the FAFSA?

MJ: Neither foster parents nor legal guardians are considered parents for the purposes of completing the FASFA, so their financial information is not reported. If the student is considered a ward of the court (or was prior to turning 18), then he or she would be considered an independent student for FASFA filing purposes. In some cases, however, the legal guardianship arrangement does not make the student a ward of the court, and therefore the student would be considered a dependent. This means that financial information from the actual parent is required.

Making Higher Education Affordable

The cost of higher education continues to rise each year, but you should never let finances get in the way of pursing your career goals. Complete the FAFSA to apply for student loans and grants, then look for scholarships that can be used to provide additional assistance. Gen and Kelly Tanabe, authors of financial aid books such as 1001 Ways to Pay for College and The Ultimate Scholarship Book, offer scholarship application tips in the LoveToKnow College interview How to Win a Scholarship.

Expert FAFSA Completion Tips