VSAC’s Carrie Harlow offers online road map to filling out the FAFSA

Written by
Emily Stetson

Date
October 19, 2021

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The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a required form that every college-bound student and family must complete to qualify for student loans, federal aid, and scholarships. VSAC’s Carrie Harlow has been helping families complete the FAFSA for more than 20 years. We sat down with her recently to talk about the process to preview her Oct. 26 “VSAC Shows You How” FAFSA webinar.

For families who are brand-new to FAFSA, how does it work? And for parents who remember completing it when they were students, what’s changed?

The FAFSA is basically a snapshot of your family’s financial situation, based on your prior year’s tax return and current assets. Students share their completed FAFSAs with the colleges they’re applying to so those schools can determine need-based financial aid for which the students may be eligible. Federal loan programs and some scholarship and grant programs also use this information.

The FAFSA process is so different now than it was 20 or more years ago. When many parents were applying to college, most FAFSA filers filled out paper forms. Now, more than 99% of FAFSA filers will submit the FAFSA online, with a link right to the IRS, so the FAFSA can pull their tax return information automatically. 

Unfortunately, there are a handful of situations where that IRS link won’t work. If the tax filers’ marital status has changed since the taxes were filed, or if they’ve experienced identity theft, they’ll have to input their information manually. Fortunately, the FAFSA website offers helpful step-by-step instructions for those situations. Each question has a help icon you can click on to view a picture of the tax return with the appropriate field highlighted, so you know exactly where to find the information.    

The FAFSA application is even available as a mobile app, so students and parents can complete it on their phones.  

Both the student and the parent need to sign the FAFSA. Each party needs their own unique FSA ID to access the IRS links and sign the form. Sometimes this is the biggest challenge, because maybe the student doesn’t live with that parent all the time, or it’s hard to find time when the parent and student are both free. What’s great about the online FAFSA is that you can save your application partway through, log off and have the other person log in. You can also “hand it off” back and forth between student and parent — and you don’t need to be in the same place at the same time to do that. 

What are the top questions you get from families?

From students, the top questions are “Do I have to use parental information or not?” and “If my parents aren’t together, whose information needs to be reported?” Family situations aren’t always simple, and Federal Student Aid actually offers a couple of flowcharts (here and here) to help students answer these questions.

From parents, the most common question I get is “What if my financial situation has changed since I filed my taxes?” We’ve had a rough couple of years in our country, and often the information we reported last spring on our taxes is not what’s happening right now. Maybe there’s been a job change, or unemployment benefits have stopped, or they’ve had high medical bills. The FAFSA is a “just the facts” document, and there’s no place to explain stressful changes in circumstances. It’s important for families to know that they can always work with financial aid offices and the VT Grant Program at VSAC to let them know about changes in circumstances.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see families make when it comes to the FAFSA?

By far, the biggest mistake is not filing the FAFSA because people assume they won’t qualify for aid. Grants, scholarships, and work-study eligibility aside, even if the student wants to be able to borrow a federal student loan, they must file that FAFSA. I sometimes also see families reporting assets on the FAFSA they don’t need to report. Retirement savings accounts and the primary family home are always excluded from the FAFSA, but families sometimes accidentally report that information, which could make the student eligible for less financial aid. 

What’s the deadline to file?

You can file your FAFSA as early as October 1. We tell people there are three deadlines to consider. 

The first — and most important— is the one the college sets. If you’re applying to several schools, pick the earliest date and meet that one. 

The second deadline is for your state. In Vermont, if you’re applying for state grant programs, we say “first come first serve.” That sometimes can stress people out, but the truth is, students should apply and complete their FAFSA and Vermont grant applications during the fall and winter to be among the first group to be notified about Vermont grants during the spring. 

And the third deadline is before the end of the school year, when you absolutely need to get your aid disbursed. No one wants to be up against that deadline!

How much time does it take to file?

You must fill out a FAFSA form every year that you wish to be considered for financial aid. The first time you fill it out, it may take a little longer — but still, less than an hour. When you complete it again for future years, a lot of the information is saved in the system, so it’s quicker and easier.  

How does VSAC help families with the FAFSA?

VSAC offers presentations to walk families through the process, and we also offer one-on-one help and our FAFSA Completion Guide.

On Tuesday, Oct. 26, from 6 to 7 p.m., we’re doing an online “VSAC Shows You How” presentation where we complete a sample FAFSA form, question by question. You can watch it live on VSAC’s Facebook page or watch the presentation via Zoom by registering in advance. The recorded webinar will be available for viewing afterward at www.vsac.org/financial-aid-videos.

We also have a toll-free FAFSA helpline (833-802-8722), where families can call us with questions between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. And we offer individual Zoom help sessions that families can sign up for on the events page at www.vsac.org/events

Our counselors have helped FAFSA filers remotely using a lot of different methods. We can be on Zoom, on the phone, or using Facetime — and I’ve even texted with students when cell service and internet were insufficient to support both a video call and filing the FAFSA. If you’re having trouble, we can absolutely talk you through it.