for teens planning on college this year: it’s federal student aid application time.

Our survey responses tell us that there are as many of you planning on college as there are those of you that aren’t. For those of you who are, and you desire federal financial aid assistance to make it happen, this article is for you. Written by Mary Fallon of www.fafsa.com, here’s what you need to know to get started. Mary’s group will do the prep work for you for a fee. To do it on your own, visit the gov site at www.fafsa.ed.gov

The clock starts ticking on January 1st – when more than 17 million college students can apply for financial aid available for the 2013-14 academic year. Families – especially parents of first-time college students – often find applying for aid stressful and time-consuming.

Prospective and current college students must prepare a federal student aid application (FAFSA) to be eligible for merit and need-based aid including free grants, work-study and federal loans.

Students have 2 options when preparing their aid application – either get professional help either from a fee-based service or free advice like a College Goal Sunday, OR prepare it themselves on the U.S. Department of Education’s website.

Families need reminding that most aid requires preparing a FAFSA, which provides students access to merit and need-based aid including free grants, work-study and federal loans.  $236  billion in aid is available for the 2013-13 academic year.

Because the 130 asset, income and dependency questions can be complex for many, professional, fee-based  FAFSA prep is offers greater assurance of accuracy and meeting deadlines.

Dependency for children of divorced parents, aid for students with unemployed family members, determining if a house and family business are assets or not and whether to count the income of step-parents are some of the more complex FAFSA issues. Please call or email me if you are interested in interviewing a student aid expert about the FAFSA.

FAFSA mistakes move students out of the first-come, first-served virtual line for aid. Last year more than 750,000 of the students notified of FAFSA errors by the US Dept. of Education failed to correct their application, and thereby left money on the table. When caught by the DOE, mistakes temporarily bump a student out of the virtual, first-come, first-served line for aid. But unfortunately some mistakes that can lower aid eligibility don’t get flagged by the DOE for correction. (Fee-based FAFSA services read answers and find mistakes the government’s computer review does not.)

Financial aid, available to nearly all students regardless of income, can significantly reduce students’ out-of-pocket college costs. In the 2011-12 academic year, undergraduate students on average received $13,218 in aid, including free grants; low-cost, federal education loans; and work-study opportunities. Students, who receive education support from military aid programs, also may increase their aid award by submitting a FAFSA.

Best time to prepare and submit a FAFSA is January – using income estimates if taxes aren’t filed. The longer a student waits, the more likely the aid award mix becomes more self-help aid (loans and work-study) than free grant aid. State FAFSA deadlines here: http://www.fafsa.com/fafsa-deadlines/fafsa-state-deadlines

Besides avoid mistakes professional FAFSA preparation also can save time. Students new to the FAFSA spend about 78 minutes to complete a FAFSA alone, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Repeat FAFSA applicants shave only 11 minutes off that time. In comparison, Student Financial Aid Services walks a student (or parent) through FAFSA preparation in about 20 minutes by telephone.

Preparing a FAFSA pays off in another significant way for first-time college students. A 2011 study, published by theJournal of Student Financial Aid, showed first-year students who submit a FAFSA are 72% more likely to persist in college than students who do not file the aid application. Preparing a FAFSA is even more significant for lower-income students who are eligible for free Pell Grants. They are 122% more likely to remain in college compared to students who do not submit a FAFSA, according to research by Lyle McKinney, Ph.D., assistant professor of higher education at the University of Houston, and Heather Novak, statistical analyst for the Office of Institutional Research at Colorado State University.

Finally, for those of you wondering about the pros of Mary’s fee-based application help, Mary has submitted this:

2013 – comparing FAFSA preparation options to gain college financial aid

College planning is in full swing by high school seniors and adults who plan take courses while working next fall. After using colleges’ net price calculators to compare their financial aid and costs estimates, students can request aid by preparing the lengthy, and sometimes daunting, federal student aid application (FAFSA).  Nearly everyone – regardless income – qualifies for student aid. Students should prepare a FAFSA every year to reduce their out-of-pocket college costs.

Two Options. To encourage students to prepare a FAFSA each year, the federal government offers two options: either answer FAFSA questions on the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) website http://studentaid.ed.gov/  for free, or, much like income tax preparation, get help from a service that charges a fee for FAFSA preparation and financial aid advice.

By law, FAFSA services must inform students of preparation options. No legitimate service charges for only submitting a FAFSA. Fees pay for application preparation. But avoid paying huge fees. Top FAFSA preparation services cost only about $100 and have refund policies.

Where to Get Help. Most high school counselors don’t have the time or aid expertise to prepare students’ FAFSAs. Colleges’ financial aid professionals often advise admitted students about how to answer FAFSA questions. But extremely few colleges actually prepare students’ FAFSAs. However, most states do offer a one-day College Goal Sunday or other events where financial aid experts answer FAFSA questions without charge. Suggested by Terry Savage, a nationally-known personal finance expert, fee-based service Student Financial Aid Services, Inc. (www.fafsa.com) offers free and discounted help to thousands of low-income students each year. It provides assistance in multiple languages.

Why Get Help? Time and possibility of mistakes are the top two reasons students choose getting help from a fee-based FAFSA service rather than to tackle it themselves. Novices spend about 78 minutes to complete a FAFSA, according to the DOE’s latest statistics.  Repeat FAFSA applicants shave only 11 minutes off that time. However, a professional student aid advisor can walk a student (or parent) through FAFSA preparation in about 20 minutes.

Mistakes Reduce Aid. The FAFSA’s more than 130 asset, income and dependency questions can appear simple. Yet correct answers aren’t always obvious. FAFSA mistakes, such as miscalculating adjusted gross income or counting a primary residence as an asset, will reduce an aid award.  When caught by the DOE, mistakes temporarily bump a student out of the virtual, first-come, first-served line for aid. But unfortunately some mistakes that can lower aid don’t get flagged by the DOE for correction. A lot is at stake. For the 2013-14 academic year, $236 billion in federal, state and institutional aid is available to more than 17 million U.S. college students. Last year, undergraduates on average received more than $13,000 in aid.

Self Help vs. Pro Help. The FAFSA on the DOE’s website includes a ‘help’ feature to guide students. In contrast, a high quality, fee-based FAFSA preparation services offer one-on-one counseling, track and inform students about deadlines, answer difficult or confusing questions, provide estimates of the amount of federal and state aid a student can expect to receive, and  most importantly, double check for errors by reviewing every FAFSA answer twice. The best FAFSA services not only use a computer review of a FAFSA, but rely on professional student aid advisors to carefully read each answer. Avoid any service that suggests gaming the system by inaccurately answering FAFSA questions. Also, top services earn an A+ Better Business Bureau rating and are recommended by their clients.

For help, the DOE also offers an online chat in English or Spanish – available Monday through Friday mornings and on Saturdays. Some preparers provide experts who speak multiple languages, a service that many parents of first-generation college students find helpful. Fee-based services usually are open for extended hours during the week and on weekends.

Apply in January. To be eligible for the most aid possible, apply for aid in January. More students – especially first-time FAFSA applicants – are seeking out professional assistance to deal with the form’s complexity and to beat state and college deadlines. After all, the aid process is competitive.

Seven states – Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington are urging students to submit a FAFSA as close to January 1st as possible because aid – especially need-based grants – will disappear quickly because state funds are limited. Other states with early deadlines are Oregon Feb. 1st, Connecticut Feb. 15th; Rhode Island, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Idaho March 1st; and California March 2nd.

Generally students applying in January are more likely to receive more free grant aid than those who delay until state or college deadlines. There’s no need to wait until income taxes are filed to prepare a FAFSA. Income can be estimated and a FAFSA submitted early to save a student’s place in the virtual aid line. Income figures can be updated later.

One advantage of fee-based FAFSA preparers is that most have access to the FAFSA months before the January 1st start of the aid season. They prepare aid applications with income estimates early and submit them January 1st so their clients are among the first in the virtual line for aid.

Whether preparing the FAFSA at no cost on the DOE’s website, or getting help from a professional, fee-based FAFSA preparation service, be sure to accurately answer questions, sign the application, and submit it in January to be eligible for the most aid possible.

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