Finding financial aid to send your kids to college

PHOENIX - Tens of thousands of Arizona high school seniors and college students are rushing to file their Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA.

The form can be long and sometimes complicated.

"It was very scary. It's extremely comprehensive," said Pati Pakulis a widow with a son attending ASU and two more children getting ready for college.

Pakulis, like so many other parents, was on edge on how to fill out the FAFSA.

She knew her answers could determine whether her son got enough money to pay for college.

"You're just afraid of making mistakes. You don't want to put the wrong amount in the wrong box, it's very overwhelming," Pakulis said.

That's why she turned to Arizona College Planning Consultants President Jeff Biro for help.

FAFSA is used by colleges, universities and scholarship organizations to determine if your student is eligible for financial aid, state aid, or even merit scholarships.

Biro said the biggest mistake parents make is not filing because they think they make too much money. 

"Even if we make a lot of money, which I have a lot of clients that do, you might not get financial aid but you'll get merit aid," he said.

Merit awards are given for good grades and community service. Biro said that most parents don't realize there's more merit award money given out than any other type of aid.

Another big mistake is filing late. 

FAFSA opens January 1  and aid is given on a first-come, first-serve basis.

"Think of it as a line to a movie premiere. If you're one of the first in line, you'll get into the theatre. If you're at the end, you may not get in," Biro said.

Filing in January is especially important for families who qualify for aid.

You may have to guesstimate your taxes, but you can adjust your numbers after you file.

So having your previous year's tax return handy before you begin is important.

Biro cautions filers about another big mistake, overinflating the value of your home.

"They use what their houses were worth in 2008 or what they hope they're worth. That's incorrect. You should put down what you're paying taxes on," Biro said.

Another big mistake is lying on your FAFSA. Biro said your FAFSA and your tax return are linked, so make sure they match or you could find yourself in some trouble.

Biro's advice paid off for Pakulis.

"I would say to any parent it's worth filling out, because you never know if you're eligible or not," Pakulis said.

We had many college planners give us input on the do's and don'ts of filing your FAFSA. J.D. Wyczalek, founder of AZ College Consulting LLC sent in this advice:

1. Don't let your child fill out the FAFSA on their own

2. Take the time to gather the required documentation, Current W2 statements and most current Federal Tax forms.

3. Do not include Home Equity or Retirements account amounts on the FAFSA. This will falsely inflate your Expected Family Contribution and your student will qualify for less aid

4. Read the fine print on the form. Verify that you put student data in the student section and parent data in the parent section. There are things to take advantage of especially if you are a business owner.

5. Fill out the FAFSA even if you think you make too much money to qualify for aid. Some colleges will not give out merit aid unless they have a FAFSA on file and some colleges will give a $500 or $1000 scholarship just for filing the FAFSA before the Deadline.

6. Watch all deadlines

7. Remember to follow up with the college and verify that they have received it. A simple phone call or email to the recruiter is all it takes.

8. Don't wait until April to file the FAFSA or your taxes. File both ASAP because some colleges it is first come first serve with scholarships

9. If you financial situation changed and is not accurate with the numbers because there was a job loss or death in the family or excessive medical bills that impact your finances, remember to appeal to the colleges for more aid.

10. Remember the other financial aid forms such as the CSS Profile financial aid form required by most of the highly selective colleges. Some colleges have proprietary financial aid forms in addition to the FAFSA. For example the College of Wooster has a proprietary form or you can use the CSS Profile. If either of these forms is not filed then  that student will not receive aid.

11. Use the correct website There are other websites that charge a fee to file this free form.

12. Seek professional help. A CPA is an expert on taxes and a financial planner may be good in their field but can they show you ways to qualify for more aid? Can they show you how to reduce your liability and get more scholarships? Most can't because they have never filed a FAFSA form.

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