USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Kyle Winters was a standout high school pitcher who tossed seven scoreless innings in a major tournament during his senior year. That performance against some heavy-hitting future MLB draft picks helped Kyle earn a full-ride scholarship to the University of New Mexico. However, Kyle opted to play professional baseball and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the fifth round and played seven seasons for various minor league teams. Kyle is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the gateway to federal and state aid. While athletic scholarships can help ease college costs, full-rides are an exception and not the norm. FAFSA, which opened last October 1, is the place to start to build a robust scholarship package.
Chances are you’re on top of this; in financial aid, as in comedy, timing is everything. In states such as Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky, awards are made until funds are depleted. Each state has a different application deadline. Some have already passed; others are coming up fast. There’s no uniform college deadline, either. Not being aware of deadlines is just one of the FAFSA mistakes that can cost families. Here are others:
Don’t be intimidated
The FAFSA application process can be daunting. Dan Mann, Director of Student Financial Aid at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, gets it. Beyond compiling one’s financial information, some of the definitions regarding a family’s situation can be confusing, he observes. But fear not. “Most people who go through it find that it is not as hard as the perception that it is going to be,” Mann reassures. Which leads us to perhaps the biggest FAFSA mistake of all.
Don’t Disqualify Yourself
FAFSA is the mechanism through which schools gain insight into a family’s financial circumstances. “Don’t assume you’re not going to be eligible,” Mann emphasizes. “Sometimes with Division 1 athletes who are on full-ride scholarship, they may not feel like they need additional money. But most students don’t have that luxury, so we encourage you to fill out the FAFSA even if you don’t think you’re eligible. If at some point you determine you might need a student loan, you need to have a FAFSA on file to do that. Some schools require you to have a FAFSA on file to get a job on campus. So it’s more than just applying for grant aid, it’s really the common application for federal, state and institutional aid.
Michael Runiewicz, Director, Student Financial Services at Washington University in St. Louis, elaborates. “A lot of families who think they won’t qualify for aid, in reality, qualify for and oftentimes receive significant amounts of aid. In the case of expensive private schools, even if a family makes more than $300,000 a year, students might receive need-based aid if their family has more than one student in college.
Insider tip: Use the net price calculator feature on a college website. This will give you an estimate of how much it will cost to attend that institution and what financial assistance a student will qualify for.
Who is You?
The word “you” trips up many parents filling out the FAFSA. “’You’ almost always refers to the student,” Runiewicz states. “Parents think it refers to them because they are the ones reading it. For example, for the question, ‘Are you married?’ a couple will answer yes. That’s a significant mistake. The same thing can happen on questions about income. If a parent puts their income in the student section of the FAFSA, that, too, is a big problem. You have to read the questions closely.
Don’t Self-Adjust Financial Information
FAFSA recently changed the way it asks for a family’s financial data. No longer does the form ask for prior year information; it now asks families to provide “prior, prior year” data, meaning that students entering college in the fall of 2018 will be asked to provide financial information from 2016.
“This can potentially be confusing to families because right now we’re already 16 months past 2016 and their financial circumstances might have changed over that time,” Runiewicz notes. “Maybe a parent has changed or lost a job, they’ve gone through a divorce or something else has happened that has impacted that family’s financial circumstances. They believe their story is not being told correctly and they decide to provide 2017 data they consider to be more reflective of their current situation. That’s going to be a problem for us. We don’t want families to self-adjust anything; we are the ones required to make those adjustments on behalf of the family.”
Runiewicz urges parents to let a school’s financial aid office know if there is something impacting their family’s ability to pay for college that is not reflected on the FAFSA.
Insider tip: Do not report defined retirement plan assets on the FAFSA. This is a common reporting error, Runiewicz points out. “What a family deposits into their retirement plan is considered untaxed income and needs to be reported, but not what they have in their retirement plan. Another common error is reporting any equity in the home. Some families tend to think of their home as an asset, and so they may accidentally include that on the FAFSA.”
Don’t Forget to Sign
You’re kidding, right? No; neglecting to sign the FAFSA is an all-too-common mistake, according to Mann. “The FAFSA will not be processed until those signatures are there,” he states. Care must be taken, he adds, for signees to use the correct FAFSA-designated pin numbers when signing electronically. Mix-ups occur when a parent signs with their student’s number and vice-versa. Related to that for families filling out separate FAFSAs for more than one student is to not mix up the pin numbers and social security numbers.
“It does hold up financial assistance awards,” Mann says. “It slows the down the process and could jeopardize meeting aid deadlines.”
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds while filling out the FAFSA. Take Question 28; please. This asks students if they will have their bachelor’s degree before the 2018-19 school year. “It’s a common mistake with high school students,” Mann says. “They confuse bachelor degree with high school diploma and answer yes.”
Confusing? Yes. Frustrating? Can be. But none of this should dissuade you from filling out the FAFSA. “Everything is correctable, but it’s really helpful to get it right the first time,” Mann states. “It makes the process go so much smoother.”