File student-aid form early

Personal Finance

January 16, 2007|By Eileen Ambrose | Eileen Ambrose,Sun Columnist

Colleges urge parents and students to submit their Free Application for Federal Student Aid as early as possible after the new year, but rushing to fill out this important yet complicated form can lead to mistakes.

Students must complete the FAFSA to apply for federal aid. States and colleges typically rely on the FAFSA, too, to award their aid. Colleges encourage families to file the FAFSA as early as possible to make sure they meet state deadlines - in Maryland it's March 1 - but also because aid from institutions is usually doled out on a first-come basis, says Vincent Pecora, financial aid director at Towson University.

But filing too fast can hurt if it leads to mistakes. Errors can delay the processing of your application. Worse, they could affect the amount of assistance you receive if you don't correct them in time to meet state or college deadlines, Pecora says.

FOR THE RECORD - The Federal Student Aid Information Center phone number was incorrect in Eileen Ambrose's business section column Tuesday. The correct number is 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

The FAFSA is similar to a 1040 tax form, but twice as long.

Most students and parents fill out the FAFSA online. That's good, because the software program can flag inconsistencies and allow you to fix errors right then.

Still, mistakes can happen online or on paper. Here are some common errors:

Parents or students not signing the FAFSA. (That's also one of the most common mistakes on tax returns.) More often with online applications, the parents fail to get a pin number that allows them to electronically sign the form, says Zhanna Goltser, financial aid director with the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. To get one, go to www.pin.ed.gov, she says.

Reporting the wrong amount of income tax. The form is looking for the parents' tax liability, not the amount of taxes withheld from paychecks. By reporting the amount withheld, families can overstate or under-report income taxes, depending on whether they will get a refund or pay more in taxes this season.

Reporting the wrong number of people in the household. Students and parents will either claim relatives who don't qualify, say a visiting uncle, or forget to add a family member.

Not reading instructions closely. Reviewing the instructions can help avoid a variety of mistakes, some of them critical, says Sharon Hassan, Goucher College's financial aid director. For instance, families aren't supposed to use decimal points. Writing $500.00 on a paper application might be read by a scanner as $50,000, she says.

Failing to register for Selective Service, if required. "If males do not register for Selective Service then they are deemed ineligible for [financial aid] until they complete this requirement," says Nigel D. Edwards, financial aid director at Morgan State University. "The easiest way to do so is to check the appropriate box on the FAFSA."

Understating income. Don't forget bonuses or capital gains that should be included as income, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid, an online publisher of aid information. Once income is corrected, families could receive less aid than they were counting on, he says.

Nearly one-third of FAFSA forms are randomly selected for a verification process where errors or discrepancies are flagged, Kantrowitz says. Some schools put all their FAFSA forms through this review, he says.

Students and parents should fill out the FAFSA together to reduce errors. This task is supposed to take an hour, but most families should count on three or four hours, Kantrowitz says.

Very early filers can end up using year-end pay stubs, W-2s and last year's tax returns to estimate family finances. If these early estimates turn out to be off, families should correct applications once they have firm figures, Goltser says.

If you have questions when filling out the FAFSA, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 800-433-3234. Maryland Higher Education Commission's Web site, at www.mhec.state.md.us, posts the dates and locations for College Goal Sunday, a program where families can get free help filling out the FAFSA.

Questions? Comments? Write personal.finance@baltsun.com/

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