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LJWorld.com weblogs First Bell

It's FAFSA time again

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Parents who've been through this before probably need no reminder. But if this is the first year you've had a child about to graduate high school with plans for going to college, now is the time to start preparing to fill out your online FAFSA form.

That stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and it's the basic form used by almost all colleges and universities for determining eligibility for Pell grants, federal student loans, scholarships, work-study grants and all other forms of financial aid.

My only intent here is to offer a few words of advice from someone who has gone through this more than just a few times. If you want real, professional advice, your student's guidance counselor is probably your best bet. There are also several websites that offer guidance, but the best one is probably the FAFSA site itself.

The first dilemma you're likely to notice is that they ask you for all kinds of income and tax information now, even though you probably don't have it yet. And if you're one of those families that waits until April 15 to file your taxes, that could be a problem because most colleges want the forms in well ahead of that.

Don't worry. You can always estimate, and then go back and change things later. If your household and income information hasn't changed much since last year, just plug in last year's numbers as a kind of place holder. Later in the process, they'll ask you whether you've filed your taxes yet. Just answer correctly. Then later, when you do file, you can go back and put in the right numbers and finalize the application.

The important thing here is to get the student's name and basic information in the queue so he/she meets the application deadlines.

That said, here are a couple of tips that will make things easier, both this year and in subsequent years because you're going to be doing this at least a few more times throughout your child's college career.

First, write down all the user names and PINs you create in the process. And by this, I mean write them down on an actual, physical piece of paper. Put that piece of paper in a file folder labeled with words that actually mean something, like "FAFSA Information - (Child's Name)." Then, put that file folder in a safe place where you can find it again later. I am told by people who call themselves experts that filing cabinets are useful for this purpose. You could ask how I learned that lesson, but we'll save that for another day.

This will also make things easier next year, and all subsequent years, because the online file you create will stay there and most of the information you enter this year can be automatically carried over next year.

Second, gather as much information as you can in advance. Most of the information they ask for is the same as what they ask on your tax returns, but they also ask for additional information. To get started, you may want to download and print out the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet. This is not a form you will submit to anyone, but it will give you an idea of what you're going to need.

Third, be mindful of deadlines. The U.S. Department of Education has deadline for getting forms to them, but states have their own deadlines, and so do individual colleges and universities. For the upcoming (2013-14) academic year, the feds will take applications all the way up to June 30, 2014, but don't wait that long.

In Kansas, the state deadline (for certain kinds of state-funded aid) is April 1, 2013. Note, that's two weeks before the deadline for filing taxes.

Schools have their own deadlines, so you should check with them individually. Also, you may want to ask them their definition of "deadline" - whether it's the date for getting the form to them, or the date the form needs to have been processed.

Finally, don't worry if your child hasn't yet decided where he/she wants to go for college. When you get to the part of the form where they ask what schools you want to send the reports to, plug in all the schools where your student has applied or plans to apply. There's no extra charge. And, again, you can always go back and change things later. Just remember to be mindful of deadlines.

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