MCT News Service
However, here's some news that should make filers rejoice: The federal aid form, known as FAFSA, is more streamlined and much easier to fill out this year.
The 2010-2011 documents from the U.S. Department of Education are available online at www.fafsa.gov (even the government Web address has been simplified). Don't confuse the government's site with some online filing services that charge a filing fee.
The FAFSA is required for virtually all college students seeking financial aid. This year, the federal government alone is expected to award more than $168 billion in student aid based on the information submitted on the FAFSA.
Most families fill out the student-aid application online. Parents and students will need their 2009 income and investment information from their federal income tax return to answer some FAFSA questions, though it's fine to provide either estimates or numbers from your previous return that can be updated later.
It normally takes several hours to complete the paperwork. But this year, you should be able to shave some time off the job because of the application makeover that was rolled out Jan. 1.
According to some reports, the 2010-2011 FAFSA shortens the application process by about 20 questions. The new version also skips questions that don't apply to your circumstances, said Patricia Nash Christel, a spokeswoman for Sallie Mae, the higher education services company. For example, she said, female students are not asked about Selective Service registration.
Online filers also will see more help boxes and prompts based on information provided in the filing process. Also new, said Christel, is an instant estimate of eligibility for the Pell grant, the nation's largest student-aid program. Previously, she said, students had to wait several weeks for the information.
The fixes in FAFSA are only the beginning, Christel said. By summer, families should be able to transfer their federal income tax information to the financial aid form by clicking on a link, thereby eliminating another batch of questions.
The Department of Education revamped the electronic form mostly in reaction to complaints that the process had become too complicated. That's one reason 24 percent of families sending children to college did not bother completing the FAFSA in the 2009-2010 academic year, according to a national study from Sallie Mae and Gallup. Other reasons for not filing the FAFSA: Families didn't think they were eligible for aid or weren't aware of the filing requirement.
As for this year, set aside quiet time to concentrate, take a deep breath, and remember that the reward for submitting the FAFSA may well be low-cost or free money to pay for college.
FILLING OUT THE FAFSA
Students will need their Social Security number, driver's license, 2009 W-2 Forms and other records of money earned, and 2009 federal income tax return.
You may also need your parents' 2009 federal income tax return, if you are a dependent.
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