January 16

Maine experts’ advice: Don’t wait to apply for financial aid

Almost half of Maine’s high school seniors haven’t applied for some of the $150 billion pot available to college students.

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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APPLYING: Erica Bean, left, and her daughter Hanna Turgeon talk about applying for college financial aid Wednesday at their Sidney home. Turgeon plans to study nursing at University of Maine at Fort Kent.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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“I say that everybody should file because you don’t know what you’re eligible for until you file,” she said. “It’s not like there’s a cutoff. It might only be a loan, but everybody’s eligible for something.”

Federal student loans are better than private loans because borrowers can receive flexible repayment terms in some circumstances, Tappan said. Their interest rates are fixed and may be lower than rates on private loans.

Leveille and Tappan said another common mistake is that students skip filing the FAFSA if they think they might not go to college or another post-secondary school. If they change their minds later and decide to enroll, they might miss their chance to receive aid.

Because the FAFSA is free and doesn’t commit a person to anything, even undecided students should complete it.

“You can list any schools on it that you even think you might attend,” Tappan said. “If you do attend, they have your information and can decide what you’re eligible for. If you don’t go, nothing bad happens. They just don’t do anything with the data.”

What you’ll need

The most important pieces of information to have, Tappan said, are the student’s Social Security Number and full legal name as it appears on the Social Security card.

FAFSA filers also need at least an estimate of 2013 household income. That should include parent income even if the parents aren’t contributing to education costs for most students born in 1991 or later.

Because so few people have their taxes done so early in the year, Leveille said, the application is designed to accept estimates early on.

Applicants can base those estimates on the previous year’s tax return if little has changed, a W-2 or a final pay stub. If none of those are available, Tappan said a guess is fine. Starting in February, filers can update their forms manually or by using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool online to transfer information to the FAFSA two weeks after a tax return is filed.

The U.S. Department of Education says that it takes an average of 23 minutes to fill out the FAFSA.

“Years ago it was a more difficult process to get through. The good news is now, the FAFSA has become so easy,” Tappan said. “But people don’t always realize that. Their experience years ago isn’t what it’s like today.”

Go from A to Z

Most of this advice is long-standing.

Leveille drew attention, however, to a tip that emerged after media outlets reported last year that some colleges and universities may use one piece of the FAFSA against applicants.

Students can list up to 10 schools with which they want their FASFA information shared by the U.S. Department of Education. Every school receives all the information and can see where each student listed their institution relative to others.

According to the National Association of College Admission Counseling, some institutions, trying to increase the chance that an admitted applicant will attend, are more likely to admit students who put the school high on their FAFSA lists, or they may offer those students financial aid first.

To avoid any such consequences, students should list schools alphabetically, not by preference, Leveille said.

Tappan said she’s never encountered any evidence that schools in Maine care about their position on a FAFSA list. Her only tip regarding order is that a student considering more than 10 institutions list the ones with earliest deadlines first because they’ll be allowed to add more later.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645 smcmillan@centralmaine.com Twitter: @s_e_mcmillan@s_e_mcmillan

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