As part of Playbill.com's Back to School week (#BwayBacktoSchool), PlaybillEDU walked through the process with actual performing arts students, and prepared a real-world guide on how to navigate your way to financial aid.
First off, timing is important. You’re not allowed to file the FAFSA until Jan. 1, but the pool of aid money is limited, so you are well advised to file as soon after the New Year as possible. The final deadline for filing for fall 2016 is June 30, 2016, but many individual schools have deadlines far earlier than that, generally in February or mid March. Check the schools to which you are applying on PlaybillEDU.
The application process has distinct pros and cons.
The cons of FAFSA involve how complicated it is to fill out and how confusingly worded the directions can be. You also have to reapply each year that you or your child are in college.
The pros: There are many, starting with the fact that you have to endure the pain of this process only once each year, instead of having to do it again and again for each college on your or your child’s list. Overwhelmingly, most colleges and universities use the FAFSA process to determine who gets financial aid and how much. Millions of dollars in aid are available, paid for by your taxes, so it is in your interest to apply for your share. Applying for FAFSA is free. Application takes place entirely on the web, at Fafsa.gov. The process closely resembles filling out a tax return. Some people actually hire accountants to do it for them. But most students can do it themselves, or with some help from parents, guardians or other financially savvy friends. PlaybillEDU will walk you through it step by step, below.
Before You Start:
Have a copy of your and your parents’ income tax returns from 2015 (or 2014) at hand. If you or they have already filed for the current year (2015 taxes), there is a way to import much of the information directly from the IRS database. You can even use last year’s (2014) tax information to fill out this year’s FAFSA application, though you will have to file an update once your new tax documents are filed.
Keep in mind that the FAFSA is designed to be filled out by the STUDENT. All the directions are worded using “you” to mean the student. If you are a student filling out the FAFSA for yourself, no problem. But if you are a parent filling out FAFSA for your child, you must engage in a bit of acting and remember that “you” means your child. If FAFSA asks you how much you earned last year, that means how much YOUR CHILD earned last year.
Have a list of the colleges to which you are applying. If you are applying to a state system with many branches, make sure you have the name of the correct branch. For example, “Indiana University” is not enough; you need to specify Bloomington, South Bend, or whichever of the other branches you hope to attend. You can research more than 2,000 performing arts programs on PlaybillEDU.
Create a hard-copy manila folder or a master file on your desktop where you will copy down and store all PIN numbers, passwords, college code numbers, confirmation numbers and phone help numbers. There will be lots of them and they will be easy to forget. Save this folder in a safe place because you will need to re-apply for FAFSA every year and will need to have all these same numbers at hand. Take a moment to write each of these down as you go along.
One last thing before you begin filling out FAFSA. You will eventually need to “sign” your application. This can be done electronically, but you will need to go to the website pin.ed.gov and apply for a four digit PIN number. It’s pretty easy to do. You will need your DOB and SS#. Confirmation of the PIN can be emailed to you. It usually happens immediately, but sometimes takes a day or so. Budget extra time for this.
Once you have your documents, your college names, your PIN number and your master information folder, you’re ready to fill out FAFSA:
Filling Out FAFSA
1. Make sure you are on Fafsa.gov, NOT fafsa-application.com or one of the other commercial sites that will charge you, but which come up first in Google searches and look almost identical to the official one.
2. Click on the green “Start a New FAFSA” button on the left.
3. Fill in basic information about the student’s name, DOB and SS#. If that is you, fine. If you are a parent or other friend or relative of the student, a quick reminder that “you” from now on will be the student.
4. Click application year. If applying for this coming fall, click on 2016-2017.
5. Fill in the student’s address. Make sure this is an address where you can receive actual snail-mail because some of their notifications come that way.
6. Make a password, 4-8 characters. This should be different from your PIN created previously. Save this somewhere you will not lose it.
7. Clicking “Next” at the bottom of each page saves what you have done. If you need to stop filling in at any time, click the “Save” button at the bottom of the page and it will retain everything you have done so far.
8. Start to type in the name of your first college. The database uses code numbers for various schools. Use the Search button, and the database will auto-load the code number for you. A list of schools will appear on the left of the screen; choose one by clicking in the box next to the name, then the “ADD” button in the middle of the screen. This will transfer that school to the column on the right. FAFSA will apply only to the schools listed in the right hand column. You can list up to 10 schools. It will list the school with its code number. Type the code number into the box labeled Federal School Code. Save these numbers in your folder. If you forget, all these codes are also listed on PlaybillEDU.
9. Let them know if you plan to live on campus, off campus, or with your parents. They’re not being nosy; they use these costs to help determine how much they think you can afford.
10. List the student’s marital status, where the student went to high school, and information about the student’s parents.
11. Pull out your tax forms and copy over information on your income, assets and liabilities, as prompted by the website. The FAFSA helpfully tells you which line on your tax return contains each piece of info it needs.
12. If the FAFSA asks you whether you have registered for Selective Service, keep in mind that most students of potential draft age must be registered in order to receive FAFSA aid. This can be done automatically while applying for FAFSA.
13. Suddenly you will find yourself on the last page. You can print out the form, sign it, and mail it in, but it is much easier to “sign” electronically using the PIN number you applied for at pin.ed.gov back at the beginning. Applications filed online are processed immediately. Those mailed in may take up to 10 days to process.
14. The confirmation page also prompts you to apply to TAP (New York State only) and other state-run tuition aid programs, where applicable, to get even more aid money.
15. Click the “complete” button. Information will be sent to the schools you specified, each of which has its own income guidelines. They will use the FAFSA info to decide whether you are eligible or not for grants, work study, and federal loans, and for how much.
16. If you used your 2014 income tax form to apply, don’t forget to sign back in to FAFSA with your password to update your information as soon as you file your 2015 taxes. You may be eligible for more aid.
17. If you have a problem or prefer to fill out a paper version of FAFSA, you can order one by calling the Federal Student Aid Information Center toll-free at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). You can also print them from the Fafsa.gov website.
18. Note that FAFSA does not cover every type of financial aid. If you find that the school of your choice offers not enough aid, or no aid at all, you may have to apply separately for commercial loans, and private or local scholarships. Those applications are not covered by FAFSA.
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