Filing the FAFSA: How to go from "trick" to "treat"

October is definitely one of the scariest months of the year.  No, not because of all of the spookiness of Halloween, but because October is when the FAFSA becomes available to file.  

As if writing essays, completing applications, and taking last minute SAT’s isn’t enough pressure this time of year, now you have the FAFSA filing to add fear and confusion to the process.

It’s not so much how to do it. While it is cumbersome, it isn’t difficult and there are many resources out there to help, including videos like this one and even a new app, which is supposed to shorten the completion time considerably.  

What can be confusing are the circumstances around “why” or “why not” to file and the concern that it could somehow have an effect on the ability to receive merit aid. 

In general, here are several reasons experts who work with families on financial fit list advise why to file the FAFSA:

  • To protect against an unforeseen event/unexpected income loss that might cause the family to need to take out loans or require financial aid (kind of like an insurance policy)

  • If the family has more than one child in college at the same time, or will within a year of each other

  • If the student is interested in work study or campus jobs 

  • If the college DOES require the FAFSA for merit aid or will withhold award letters until the FAFSA is filed – although the number of colleges that do this is small

  • To be able to take out federal student loans (and if that’s the reason, you can file the FAFSA even after you receive admissions decisions) 

Okay, so what if none of these reasons feel particularly compelling. Here are reasons why NOT to file the FAFSA: 

  • MOST colleges don’t need the FAFSA for merit aid. 

  • If the family is absolutely sure they can pay the full COA 

  • If the family does not want to provide details of their financial situation for any reason

As mentioned above, most colleges do not need the FAFSA to award merit aid and I have heard many stories of families who didn’t file, got merit aid, and if the college needed it, they then asked the family to file the FAFSA at that time.

The absolute best way to make the decision whether or not to file is to use the information above as general guidelines and evaluate based on your personal circumstances as follows:

  • Assess your family’s financial situation

  • Call the financial aid office for the colleges you’re applying to and ask them questions based on your specific situation

  • Discuss the pros and cons based on what you find out and decide what is best for you and your family

Each family’s scenario is different and unique.  Figuring out what you need to know, “why” it’s important for your family and “how” to best apply it to your situation is the best way to go from “trick” to “treat” when it comes to the FAFSA, or any aspect of college planning. 

Note: A huge debt of gratitude to my colleagues at HECA who provided their information and experience, especially Jeff Levy of Personal College Admissions and Bill Smith from ScholarFITS.