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Financial Aid Application Through a Parent’s Lens

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By now, your son or daughter has completed their applications for their top-choice colleges and they are anxiously awaiting the results, but one component of the application process may still loom overhead. The financial aid application process is one that can seem overwhelming, frustrating, or nearly impossible to complete, but speaking from a parent’s perspective, I can assure you that if you break things down, the process becomes much easier.


The first challenge may be understanding all the acronyms used in the process. FAFSA, CSS Profile, and IDOC are just a few of the acronyms one may encounter when filling out financial aid forms. It is not so important that you know what each acronym stands for, but rather the process and how completing these can help your son or daughter be eligible for the various forms of federal and institutional aid that are available.


Looking back at my experience, I realized it might have been much easier if I had another parent to walk me through the process. Having faced the daunting task by myself — discovering along the way the meanings to each of the acronyms as well as the importance of completing the forms no matter how time consuming or frustrating they may have been — my hope is that I may help other parents wade through what may seem like the impossible task of completing financial aid forms.


Read on to learn more about the FAFSA, CSS Profile, IDOC and other related information to the financial aid application process through a parent lens.


What do all these acronyms mean?

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. I have heard many students as well as parents ask if FAFSA is going to give them money. I have found myself explaining more than once that the FAFSA doesn’t give anyone money, but rather is an application that is filled out to determine whether or not a student is eligible for any form of financial aid, including the Pell Grant, SEOG Grants, low-interest student loans, as well as parent Plus loans.


Often, parents may think that it is not worth the hassle to complete the FAFSA because they feel as though they earn too much money to qualify for aid. It’s important to remember that some colleges give financial aid to students whose parents earn $200,000 or more, and often times, the financial aid is determined through a holistic process rather than just the bottom line of your tax forms.


Some schools exclude the family home, the family farm, retirement accounts, etc., so it is important to understand each school’s financial aid policies before deciding whether or not to fill out the application. My advice is to fill out the forms that the schools require whether or not you have a deep understanding of their policies, because by doing so, you could help your son or daughter reduce the student debt they may encounter once they graduate.


It’s important to know some requirements about the federal grants your son or daughter may be eligible for.


There are stipulations required for your son or daughter to receive federal aid including:


  • Must qualify to obtain a college or career school education by having a high school diploma, GED, or be home-schooled under a state approved home-school setting
  • Be enrolled in an eligible degree or certificate program
  • Be registered with the selective service if they’re male and between the ages of 18-25
  • Have a valid social security number
  • Verify on the FAFSA that they are not in default of a federal student loan or owe money on a grant, and that they will use the money for educational purposes only
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress while in school
  • Must be a U.S. citizen or U.S. National or have a green card showing they are a permanent U.S. citizen, an arrival-departure record (I-94), battered immigrant status, or have a T visa or a parent that holds a T-1 visa


What is a Federal Pell Grant?

A Federal Pell Grant is a federal grant for undergraduate students who have financial need, and it is usually given to students that have not earned a bachelor’s or professional degree. Grants, unlike loans, do not have to be paid back and can be awarded for a maximum of 12 semesters of undergraduate schooling.


The amount of Pell Grant they can receive varies from year to year; in 2016-17, the maximum amount was $5,185. The size of the grant can vary based on their financial need, cost of attendance, and status as a full- or part-time student.


If your son or daughter is eligible for a Federal Pell Grant, they will be awarded the full amount they qualify for, as each school receives enough funds from the U.S. Department of Education to fund eligible students.

What is a FSEOG Grant?

The Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant is a federal grant that is available for students that have exceptional financial need. In addition to the Pell Grant, your son or daughter may receive the FSEOG Grant in the amount of $100-$4000 per year based on availability of funds at your school. The FSEOG differs from the Pell Grant in that funds are limited, so it is important to complete your FAFSA early in order to possibly receive this grant.


What is the CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile is used by almost 400 private and state colleges to determine eligibility for non-federal financial aid. CSS stands for College Service Scholarship Profile and is an application distributed by the College Board in the United States to help students apply for financial aid for college.


The CSS Profile is much more detailed than the FAFSA and asks questions about the student and student’s parent’s financial status. The application considers all sources of income, assets and expenses not included on the FAFSA such as retirement accounts, life insurance plans, home equity on a family’s primary residence, and income and assets held by a noncustodial parent in cases of divorce.


The CSS profile is available after October 1st of each year. The CSS Profile is required by many schools, and there is a fee to utilize the CSS Profile that consists of $25 for the first application and $16 per additional school. The College Board anticipates it to take 45 minutes to two hours to complete the forms. The application is approximately 300 questions and is very detailed, so it is extremely important that you have all of your financial documents at your fingertips when filling out this form.


What is IDOC?

IDOC stands for Institutional Documentation Services and many colleges and universities utilize this service, although it is not required by all schools. It’s important to know if you are required to use this service, the College Board will notify you. The College Board uses this service to collect families’ federal tax documents and other documents on behalf of the participating colleges.


The documents collected are used to verify information from your financial aid application, including the CSS Profile and FAFSA documents and aid in the determination of receiving non-federal student aid, such as grants and scholarships from the university.


What is the Net Price Calculator?

Each individual college will have the net price calculator available on their website. The Net Price Calculator (NPC), allows you to get an estimate of the amount of financial aid you may receive from the university as well as your estimated family contribution (EFC), and expected student contribution. It is very important to remember that the results are not a guarantee of financial aid, but rather an estimate.


I encourage you to visit each college website that your son or daughter is applying to, to utilize the NPC. My experience has been that the NPC is quite accurate in regards to financial aid at the various schools, though its accuracy depends largely on the complexity of your family’s financial situation. If your family’s finances are very complex, the NPC is unfortunately quite limited in its ability to provide an accurate estimate of your expected cost of attendance.


Wrapping It Up

Although the financial aid process can be quite daunting, I can tell you from experience that it can be well worth the effort to complete the required and optional forms. Having your financial documents at your fingertips as well as allowing adequate time to complete the forms will help make the process easier. If you find that you do not have enough time to complete the forms in one sitting, you will have the opportunity to save the information you have entered and continue at a later time.


Getting to the final page of the documents, which asks you to sign that you agree that the information is true and accurate to the best of your knowledge, can be an extremely stressful moment. When I reached this page upon completing the CSS Profile, I must have reviewed the forms at least thirty different times to makes sure they were “true and accurate” before finally deciding to push the submit button. I wouldn’t recommend obsessively review the forms as I did, but rather to take a deep breath, take your time inputting the information the first time, and know that your effort may very well make a difference in the amount of student debt your son or daughter will encounter.


My final word of advice; save a copy of your completed forms. Having a copy of the prior years’ forms will help in filling out the forms in subsequent years.


For more information, please visit our the CollegeVine blog to learn more about financial aid as well as information about college applications, scholarship opportunities, and more!


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Tammy Goerger
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Tammy Goerger is a long-time educator and geo-circle lead for the Joyce Ivy Foundation. She is the mother of three children who attended Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, and she has a passion for helping students achieve their dreams and aspirations. She has been a resource for students and parents about the application process, financial aid, and scholarships. She enjoys sharing her love for music with others and volunteers as an EMT on her local ambulance squad. She strives to teach her students about the importance of community service, as well as the importance of living with an attitude of gratitude.