'You should write about college aid and the FAFSA," my brother said.
FAFSA? Why would I write about the spread of a fatal hemorrhagic fever?
"That's not FAFSA, that's Ebola."
Right, right. FAFSA is one of those yappy long-haired dogs that look like one of grandma's old wigs.
"No, that's a Lhasa apso."
Oh, sure, I knew that. Now I remember: FAFSA is that special word or phrase you chant when you meditate to bring you peace and harmony. Mine is "winning lottery ticket."
"No, that's a mantra. Mine is, 'Don't let my brother drive me nuts.' But you're close because, just like a winning lottery ticket, the FAFSA can bring you free money for college."
Well,why didn't you say that in the first place?
The ABCs of your FAFSA
I always listen to my brother, Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D., on all things college, because he's a bona fide expert: associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and author of "College is Yours 2.0."
Dr. Pat explained that the FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and if you're the parent of a college-bound student, or one already in college, this five-letter acronym should be a big part of your financial life. That's because if you are going to try and get any kind of financial aid from America's college-industrial complex, you need file the FAFSA sometime between Jan. 1 and June 30.
Colleges use the FAFSA (sometimes in conjunction with other data) to determine financial aid, as well as federal student aid, including grants, loans and work-study. Because this is America where, no matter how deserving you are, our politicians make sure you crawl over broken glass and barbed wire before you get a dime, the FAFSA is a 108-question, 10-page form with 72 pages of instructions where you need data from your last tax return, bank statements, records of investments and statements of untaxed income. I don't think they need your mother-in-law's dress size, but keep it handy, just in case.
(One hint: you can go online to import your tax return info from the IRS into your online FAFSA form, which will make it a bit easier.)
You actually want to file the FAFSA as early in the year as possible, so call your accountant, grab last year's Form 1040 and gather 'round the Christmas tree to celebrate "the scribbling of the FAFSA," America's new least-favorite holiday tradition, and one that is even more aggravating than the 800 times you'll hear "The Little Drummer Boy" at the mall.
Get FAFSA help PDQ
Fortunately, there are lots of ways you can get free help to complete your FAFSA without going completely bonkers yourself.
First, check with your high school, and other schools in your district or even nearby districts. Many host a FAFSA fair or FAFSA night with experts to help fill out the form. Others open the school computer lab on weekends so you can get help filing online. Local colleges also offer help with the FAFSA, even if you're not a student or applicant there. Or, you can gather parents and teachers and host your own FAFSA night at your school, with guides from the U.S. Dept. of Education that you can find at www.financialaidtoolkit.ed.gov.
You can also participate in College Goal Sunday, a nationwide project to help students and families complete their FAFSA forms on one Sunday in February, since March 1 is the cutoff for many schools to award aid. The date varies (it's Feb. 8 here in Michigan) and often includes many other events to help with the FAFSA; for more information, check out www.collegegoalsundayusa.org.
Other very good resources include the federal government's comprehensive website for student aid, www.studentaid.ed.gov, and the FAFSA website itself, www.fafsa.ed.gov (avoid Fafsa.com, which is a for-profit operation). Calling the financial aid office of your college or prospective school is another good resource, too. If your student is years away from attending college, you can get a rough estimate of your college aid and costs from the FAFSA4caster at www.fasfa.ed.gov.
So, check all that out, and you'll get a good overview of the FAFSA and a shot at some free college dough. Which shows that I should always listen to my brother. Even if he does beat around the bush talking about exotic diseases and yappy little mutts.
Brian O'Connor is author of the award-winning book, "The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed
Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese."