May 1, 2018. By John Wolfsberg:

Navigating through a sea of acronyms, preparing for college can be a daunting and sometimes difficult task.  As with most undertakings, early preparation can ease the process, but whether your student is in their later years of high school or college-bound in the fall, there are five key terms you will want to be aware of:

  1. Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): If you have gone to any info sessions or have Googled “college planning” than you have most likely heard the term FAFSA.  This is for good reason, as it is your gateway to federal financial aid.  It is lengthy, but the good news is that it has the ability harvest all of your income information from the IRS website, and the form autofills from year to year, cutting the time in half after your first submittal.  The deadline varies by school (and application type – regular, early action or early decision), but beginning with the 2017-2018 academic year you may be able to submit this as early as the October before your aid year using tax data from two years prior to your aid year.  The FAFSA website can provide helpful information on deadlines etc.
  2. College Scholarship Service (CSS)/Financial Aid PROFILE: CSS is a resource for non-government financial aid that is used by nearly 300 schools and universities in the United States.  The CSS PROFILE is more thorough than the FAFSA, so in consideration of your time you should ask the admissions office at the university to see that they use this service.  The PROFILE also takes into consideration your family’s medical expenses, debts, home equity and business net worth.  Visit the CSS Profile tab on the CollegeBoard website for more details (you may remember the CollegeBoard website from registering for the SATs).
  3. Student Aid Report (SAR)The SAR is your snapshot of your FAFSA.  Be sure to review this to check for errors; if you do find misinformation, you will need to correct and resubmit your FAFSA.
  4. Cost of Attendance (COA): A school’s cost of attendance includes everything from tuition and textbooks to transportation and living costs.  In short, the COA is the estimated full cost of completing on academic year as full-time student at that college or university.  Your COA items can also be used to distinguish which can be covered with funds from your 529 plans.
  5. Expected Family Contribution (EFC): The EFC accounts for a family’s assets, income, benefits, household size, family members currently enrolled in college.  Institutions subtract this amount from the COA to determine your financial need in relation to their tuition.

Have the time to get granular?  Check out the WAEPA College Guide. This 70 page handbook will walk you through preparation from pre-high school up through the 12th grade.  Better yet, it describes the details of your student aid report and loan repayment in clear terms that both you and your child will understand. The Guide also includes a special section titled “34 Ways to Save on College” along with helpful checklists.

Overall, the most important thing is to stay organized. Deadlines differ for various submissions and missing a deadline could mean the loss of aid.  You will have multiple login credentials for the websites noted above…for both you and your student. You will also have to establish an FSA (Federal Student Aid) PIN which will allow you to electronically sign your FAFSA form. Remember to store this information in a secure place where you can access it quickly when needed.

You may have further questions specific to your own Coverdell ESA, 529 Plans, or UTMA/UGMA accounts, and you are not alone.  If this is the case, we are more than happy to answer questions that you may have regarding how these vehicles fit into your financial plan and savings strategy.