FAFSA Season Is Here!

The 2014-2015 FAFSA has been released! As we’ve mentioned before, your mantra should be “the earlier the better” when it comes to financial aid. We’ve prepared this handy blog as a way to make sure you’re set to receive different kinds of financial aid. So, if you plan on making an appointment with us to fill out your FAFSA, let’s kick off with a list of things you should make sure to bring with you when you head our way:

  • Your Dependency Status: Independent students will only need their own income information (and their spouse’s, if they’re married), while Dependent students will need their parents’ as well (see our earlier blog if you aren’t sure).
  • Income Information: Gather income information from the previous year for yourself and parents if required.  Your income tax return, and/or your parents’ if necessary, for this year will work if you’ve already completed it, but if not then be prepared to provide a close estimate of this year’s income (W-2 forms, check stubs or previous year’s tax returns will all help get a good estimate).
  • Value of Assets: Check your bank account balances and the value of any other assets, such as rental property or stocks (remember: Dependent students’ bank accounts should be as low as possible to keep from raising their expected family contribution (efc) number).  Parents: don’t include retirement accounts or the value of your home in your assets.  Educational savings plans are considered a parent asset even though the student is the beneficiary.
  • Student and parent Social Security Numbers and dates of birth:  If parent or parents don’t have a Social Security Number a student can still complete a FAFSA and parent number is reported as 000-00-0000.
  • Parents’ Marital Status: If you or your parents are currently married or divorced, you will need the month and year that occurred.
  • Residency Information: If you are not a citizen, you will need your Alien Registration Number.  If you don’t have one, you will need to complete the Texas Application for State Financial Aid (TASFA) instead of the FAFSA for most Texas colleges.
  • PIN Numbers: If you are renewing your FAFSA, you will need the student and parent PIN numbers you used last year.  These can be retrieved online here if you don’t remember what you chose as your PIN number. If this will be a first time FAFSA you can apply for you pin numbers in advance or apply for them during the FAFSA process.
  • Driver’s License (Optional): You can report your driver’s license number if you have one; however, it is not required.

Stay Eligible to Keep Receiving Financial Aid

You need to make satisfactory academic progress in order to continue receiving federal student aid, including Pell Grants and loans. In other words, your grades need to be good enough and you must complete enough classes (credits, hours, etc.) to keep moving toward your degree or certificate in a time period that’s acceptable to your school. You also must renew your FAFSA each year in order to continue receiving grants or loans.

Each school has a satisfactory academic progress policy for financial aid purposes; to see your school’s, you can check your school’s website or ask someone at the financial aid office. McLennan Community College, as well as most colleges, requires you to successfully complete at least 67% of the classes you attempt. Your school’s policy will tell you:

  • what grade-point average (or equivalent standard) you need to maintain;
  • how quickly you need to be moving toward graduation (for instance, how many credits you should have successfully completed by the end of each year);
  • how an incomplete class, withdrawal, repeated class, change of major, or transfer of credits from another school affects your satisfactory academic progress; and
  • whether or not you may appeal your school’s decision that you haven’t made satisfactory academic progress (reasons for appeal usually include the death of a member of your family, your illness or injury, or other special circumstances).

If you are put on financial aid suspension and are denied your appeal, you may be required to pay for classes yourself until your completion rate and GPA reach the requirements. In some cases, you may be required to repay some of your Pell Grant money before receiving additional aid.

As long as you remain eligible, you may receive the federal Pell Grant for 12 semesters or the equivalent (roughly six years).  You’ll receive a notice if you’re getting close to your limit. If you have any questions, contact your college’s financial aid office.

Renew Scholarships Awarded by Your College

Check to find out what GPA you are required to maintain in order to continue receiving it.  Many scholarships have guidelines attached, such as requiring that you stay a full time student. Some scholarships only pay during one year and are not renewable, which may mean you need go through the regular scholarship application process if you wish to receive the scholarship during the following year.

Renew Outside Scholarships

Most outside scholarships you receive will only last for one year, especially if they are local scholarships.  Check with the scholarship provider to see if renewing is an option or if you can reapply for the scholarship each year.

Renew State Grants and Scholarships

The state legislature reviews and often changes State programs every two years.  We have an earlier blog on State programs but to be sure your information is up to date go to College for All Texans and search for your particular state grant.  Most state programs require that you maintain a certain GPA to remain eligible, and many require that you be a full time student. Also be sure to check on various veterans’ benefits if one of your parents is a vet.  Most college financial aid departments have a financial aid professional that works with the veterans’ programs and they can advise you on the paperwork required.

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The FAFSA: What You Should Know

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is required by all college and university financial aid departments in order to award any type of Student Aid.  That normally includes scholarships!  So if you have been told you will be receiving a scholarship of any type, you will most likely be required to submit a FAFSA before your scholarship can be posted to your financial aid award.  Whether your family income is less than $20,000 or more than $200,000, you will need to submit a FAFSA every year you are in college.  The information required on the FAFSA (income, number in the household, number in college and assets) will be used to calculate your family Expected Family Contribution (EFC) number. This tells the college how much your parents or you can afford to pay toward your education for next year. So the lower your EFC number is, the more money you may be offered by your college.

There are three things that are important for your FAFSA:

  1. File it Early
  2. Be sure it is Accurate
  3. Do Follow-Up

We will look at the first two in this post and the third will be addressed in our next post.

Early

The FAFSA is available for each new school year on January 1st and it should be completed as soon after that date as possible.  If all the colleges you are considering are in Texas, our advice is to complete it before March 1st which, in most cases, will be the priority deadline for financial aid. If you are looking at out of state colleges, check with them for the Priority deadline.  Many experts nationwide have started recommending as early as February 1st and you may be applying for a scholarship that requires it to be submitted even earlier. The priority deadline is the date that colleges start awarding funds and, since everything besides Federal Pell Grant or Student Loans is awarded on a first-come first-served basis, you want to be first in line! You are actually eliminated from some state programs such as the Top 10% Scholarship if you don’t complete it before March 1st.  The financial aid deadline is very different from the priority deadline so don’t be fooled when you see a deadline posted on your college’s website; the financial aid deadline is the last date you can submit it and expect an award package for the upcoming semester.  The Priority deadline is the best-if-completed-by deadline. You do not have to wait until you make the final decision on the college you plan to attend to complete the FAFSA. You can list all your possibilities up to 10 schools so that should cover your choices. So apply Early to receive the most money.

Accurate

Since the FAFSA determines how much money you will receive, you should make sure it is accurate! The reason it is only available after January 1st is that you will need the previous year income information on yourself and your parents or spouse. (See here for more information about dependency.)

The information you will need is as follows:

  • Income information – You can use yours and your parents’ Income tax return, if it is already completed. Most people don’t have their return that early so you can do the FAFSA with an estimate and correct it later.  This will put you in line for money on the date you have filed it with the estimate, however don’t wait too long to enter the new information because at some point the college will be forced to by-pass your application if it isn’t correct. To get a good estimate you can use W-2 forms or last year’s tax return if income hasn’t changed much.  You should also have available other income information such as child support, or retirement benefits that were received during the year. If you or a parent paid out child support for another child, you should also have the amount that was paid during the year.  This information will help you because it reduces the income used in the calculation.
  • Number of people in your household – use parents household if you are dependent or the number in your household if you are independent.  Always include yourself in parent household even if you no longer live there. If you are independent due to marriage or a child you support but live with someone else, parent, grandparent, sister etc., you should only show your family that you are responsible for, for example: spouse and/or child and yourself
  • Number in college – count yourself and any siblings you have that will also be in college during the next school year. Do not count a parent that is in college.
  • Assets – Parent assets will include the amount of money they have in bank accounts, any property they own other than their home, any stocks they own that are not part of a retirement plan and any educational saving plans. They will not include retirement plans, their home, their business if it has less than 100 employees or their farm if they live on any part of the farm. Student assets are where you need to be careful!  Your parents will have a deductible amount before any of their assets count against you in the EFC calculation and even if they go over their deductible, which few parents do, only about 5% of the amount over the deductible is used in the calculation. However, dependent students do not get a deductible and all of their assets will be considered in the calculations.  This means that if you have $5,000 in your bank account you could lose $2-3,000 in financial aid because of it. So what you need to remember is it asks for your current balance of your bank accounts meaning as of the day you complete your FAFSA.  Therefore, take advantage of this loophole and make sure your accounts are as low as possible on day you submit your FAFSA.  If your account is a joint account with a parent, check to see whose social security number is on the account.  If your social security number is on it, then you must report the account as yours so you may want to move some money temporarily. If it is under your parent’s number then it should be added to their assets. Educational savings plans or IRA’s are considered a parent asset even though you are a beneficiary. So make very sure you don’t mistakenly show assets for yourself that you don’t have to!
  • Parent and Student Social Security numbers and Dates of Birth are required. If a parent doesn’t have a social security number you should enter 000-00-0000.
  • If parents are married or divorced you will need the month and year that occurred.
  • If you are not a citizen you will also need your Alien Registration Number.  If you have a social security card that is stamped “For Work Purposes Only” you will need to complete the Texas Application for State Financial Aid (TASFA) instead of the FAFSA because you are not eligible for federal money but you could be considered for state funds.

The FAFSA is a “smart” form and it may skip some of the questions based on your answers to other questions and that is perfectly alright.  So you may not be asked for Asset information for example. It also triggers additional questions based on other answers, so you may be asked questions like whether you or your siblings are on a free or reduced lunch program or if your parents receive food stamps. So don’t be worried if you are asked different questions than someone else who has completed the form.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for our next post where we’ll talk about the importance of Following Up!

Do I Need My Parent’s Financial Information for The FAFSA?

If you are considered a Dependent for the purpose of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you will be required to include your parents’ financial information along with your own. If you are considered Independent, however, you will only be required to include your own information. But if you’re just starting college, sometimes it can be hard to know the classification under which you fall. Here are some helpful hints for figuring it out!

On the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you will be asked the following questions to determine whether you will be considered a Dependent or Independent student:

  • Were you born before January 1, 1990?
  • As of today are you married?
  • At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, will you be working on a master’s or doctorate program (such as an MA, MBA, MD, JD, PhD, EdD, or graduate certificate, etc.)?
  • Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces for purposes other than training?
  • Are you a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces?
  • Do you have children who will receive more than half of their support from you between July 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014?
  • Do you have dependents (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you, now and through June 30, 2014?
  • At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care or were you a dependent or ward of the court?
  • As determined by a court in your state of legal residence, are you or were you an emancipated minor?
  • As determined by a court in your state of legal residence, are you or were you in legal guardianship?
  • At any time on or after July 1, 2012, did your high school or school district homeless liaison determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless?
  • At any time on or after July 1, 2012, did the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless?
  • At any time on or after July 1, 2012, did the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?

If you can answer Yes to any of the above questions, you will be considered an independent student on the FAFSA and generally will not need to provide your parents’ information.

However, if you answer No to all of the above questions, you will be considered a dependent student, and generally your parents must provide parental information on your FAFSA.

These are the only situations that make you automatically independent. If you have a special circumstance that prevents you from providing parental information, you may still be able to submit your FAFSA. However, your FAFSA will be considered incomplete. You must contact the financial aid office at your college and provide them with documentation to verify your situation. Most colleges have a form that you must complete with documentation of your situation in order to consider you for Independent status.

You’ll notice that the questions don’t ask about whether or not you live with your parents, whether or not your parents are willing to pay any of your college expenses, or whether or not you filed your own tax return. The reason for this is that none of the answers to those questions are relevant to your FAFSA dependency status. Even if you do not live with your parents, your parents have told you they’re not going to help pay for college, and you filed your own tax return, you must include their financial information on the FAFSA if you answer No to the above questions.

The most common errors that are made in answering these yes or no questions are:

  1. Students with children: Even if you have a child, if you don’t have any income from work, child support or other sources, you can’t be providing at least half the support for the child. In this case you would still be considered dependent on parents.  If you are a Father, even if you pay child support, colleges usually won’t allow you to claim independent status unless the child actually lives with you.  If the mother is also going to college and you aren’t married, then only one of you can use that child to claim Independent Status.  However the child support you pay is reported on the FAFSA and deducted from your income in the EFC (expected family contribution) calculation.
  1. Guardianship:  Notice the question says “legal” guardianship.  That means legal paperwork signed by a Judge. Just because you live with a relative doesn’t make them your legal guardian unless that guardianship has been awarded to them by court documents.

Now, if you are considered a Dependent student on the FAFSA, you may have trouble figuring out which parent to list. Below are the criteria you will use to decide.

  • If your parents are living and married, you answer the questions about both of them even if you don’t live with them.
  • If your parent is single, you only report the income and information on that parent.
  • If parents are divorced, answer the questions about the parent you live with most or if you don’t live with either the parent you last lived with.
  • If your parents have shared custody, and you live with each 1/2 the time, you would choose the household you want to consider your responsible household. That should be the one that provided the most financial support during the last year or the last few years.
  • If the parent that you are showing on your FAFSA has remarried, you will also report the income for your step parent.
  • The only people you can report as parents on your FAFSA are biological, adoptive or step parents.  You would never report a Grandparent or other relative as you parent unless they have adopted you.
  • If you are under a legal guardianship, that guardian is not responsible for you after you turn 18 even if you continue to live with them.  So you would not report your guardian as a parent, you would be independent.

If you have any trouble with dependency questions on the FAFSA, check out this flowchart for quick reference.

Dependency Flowchart

And remember, if you ever have any questions or want any help with the FAFSA in general, contact us for an appointment.

Top 7 Things Students Seeking Scholarships Should Know

 

You’re on-board for college. You’re researching schools, thinking about majors, and writing your application essays. The question now is: How am I going to pay? You’ve heard about the MAC Program and you’re planning on giving us a call after January 1st when the new FAFSA is released so you can be eligible for as much federal financial aid as possible, but will it be enough?

Reality Check

The truth is, even if you qualify for the maximum amount of federal aid, you may not receive enough to pay for college. According to recent figures from CollegeData, the average cost of tuition and fees was $22,261 in 2012-2013 at an in-state public college and $43,289 at a private college. If you, like many people, are worried about paying the difference, you’re going to need scholarships. Here are some helpful tips to find them.

7. Don’t Pay to Find Scholarships.

There are many free ways to check for scholarships online for free. Check out FastWeb, Cappex, and Scholarships.com for a start. You can also talk to a counselor at your high school, who should have information about local scholarships and tips for filling them out.

These are reliable, easy-to-use resources, so don’t let anyone make you pay for services they’ll provide for free.

6. Look for All Kinds of Scholarships

Scholarships are not limited to students with the highest GPAs. Having great grades or test scores will help you, but there are a variety of scholarships out there for everything from financial need, to athletic ability, and even to hobbies.

Maybe you’re tall. Maybe you’re creative and looking to save money at prom. Maybe you’re just crazy about duck-calling. If you look around enough, there’s a scholarship out there for you.

5. Pay Attention to Deadlines

Each school has its own scholarship deadline, and many of them are earlier than you’d think. Make sure and check the website of every school you’re considering and put in your scholarship applications even before you know if you’re accepted.

Get your applications in before January. Some school’s deadlines are before January anyway, but even schools with later deadlines will get very busy after January hits. Early submissions are a good way to avoid the lines and make your application stand out.

4. Scholarships and Paperwork

When you’re filling out your scholarship application, it can be easy to overlook a step or a form you have to fill out. Make sure and read the instructions carefully and, more importantly, follow them. Even if a question doesn’t apply to you, make sure and mark it as “Not Applicable” or “N/A.” If an application is available online, or you can write the answers on your computer, always choose that over writing by hand. Even an accurate and punctual application is useless if it’s not legible.

Pro Tip: Make sure and use a professional email address on your applications, something as simple as firstname_lastname will do the trick. If you don’t have one, create one. It may not seem like a big deal, but whose application is more likely to be taken seriously: John_Smith@generic-but-respectable.com or goldengod89380x@dont-use-this.ever?

3. Make Your Application Stand Out

Put effort into making your application rise above the rest. You’ve already got a head start if you submit it early and have kept your hand-written answers to a minimum, now it’s all about the content.

Check and double-check your essay for spelling/grammar mistakes. Then do it again. Then ask a teacher to proofread it.

List all your accomplishments, including community service, awards, and evidence of your academic excellence.

If you need a letter of recommendation, choose a teacher that you have a good relationship with and give them plenty of time in advance to write it.

Then, proofread your essay again (can’t do this enough).

2. File Your FAFSA

Many scholarships, even those not based on financial need, require you to submit a FAFSA. You might be eligible for federal aid, so don’t miss out on that and scholarship money by forgetting to fill this out. If you want help, feel free to contact the MAC Program to set up an appointment.

We help file over 2,000 FAFSAs each year and we will never charge you, so give us a call.

1. Apply to the MAC Program

There is no reason not to. The only thing our application requires is your contact information and submission of a FAFSA. We offer a MAC Grant of up to $1,000 per semester to any McLennan County high school graduate with a family income of less than $50,000 who attends MCC or TSTC during the first four semesters and a MAC Scholarship of up to $1,250 to any McLennan County high school graduate with a family income of less than $50,000 who attends any college or university during the 3rd and 4th year.

Maybe you don’t think you’ll qualify because you’re not going to MCC or TSTC, or your family makes more than $50,000. But the MAC Scholarship during the last two years of school isn’t limited to MCC or TSTC, and maybe in a few years the economy will dip again. Things change, but we only accept applications to the MAC Program during your high school senior year, so be ready with a backup plan by submitting your application to our program now.

Financial Aid for College: First Steps

Deciding which college you want to attend is an exciting process! But it can also be stressful trying to figure out the best choice, how you’re going to pay for it, and the myriad details that may arise. So we’ve done some of the legwork for you with these first steps.

First off, make a list of the colleges you are considering and do some research. There are a number of factors that will impact your decision, but here are some fundamentals that will serve as a good baseline for your comparisons:

  • Tuition Expense
    • College for All Texans is a great resource for finding out the cost of tuition at any college or university in Texas.
  • Admissions Information and Deadlines
    • You can usually find these on a college’s website. Look for the keywords “Admissions” or “Prospective Students.” Once you know the application deadlines, you can check out Apply Texas to submit an application to each college you’re considering. While many colleges require an application fee, some (like McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical College) do not. Don’t underestimate the value of a free application to a school to which you’re even remotely interested in applying!
  • Financial Aid Information and Scholarship Deadlines
    • Again, the best place to look for this is the college’s website. Some colleges have priority scholarship deadlines as early as a year before your first semester there and require you to apply for scholarships before you even know if you’re accepted, so make sure and check early!

Remember that you can start looking for scholarships long before you’ve been accepted to a college, or even before you’ve submitted an application! Local scholarship information is sent to your high school counselors each year, and will often offer that information on your high school’s website.

You can also use several free resources online to search for other scholarships for which you might be eligible. Some of our favorites are FastWeb, Cappex, and Scholarships.com.

We’ll post more about federal and state financial aid in the future, but for now if you’d like more information about it you can visit the Department of Education’s website. And for an estimate of the aid for which you may be eligible, check out the FAFSA4caster.

If you’d like to learn more about financial aid, we here at the MAC Program are always happy to help. Feel free to email the program director Robbie Stabeno or program coordinator Sterling Moore with any questions you might have. If you’re looking to make an appointment with us, you can also call the MAC Program at (254) 752-9457 to set one up.