John Hupalo, host of MyCollegeCorner’s podcast, recently sat down with Gregg Cohen, President of Campus Bound and Founder of College Affordable to talk about the new FAFSA form. In late December 2023, the U.S. Department of Education “soft launched” the new form. Gregg answered the most pressing questions parents have about the new form, which was delayed this year.
To see the full interview:
JH: Gregg, welcome back to My College Corner.
GC: It’s nice to be here. Thanks for having me, John.
JH: Today I want to ask you the 10 FAFSA questions that most confuse parents. There’s an awful lot going on right now in the financial aid world. And confusion is really the buzzword, unfortunately.
Question number one on my list: the FAFSA was delayed and someone asked, what impact is that going to have on me as a parent and my student when colleges go to award financial aid to seniors now applying. This is a big, big question for folks. What’s going on there?
GC: Yeah, this is representing a challenge, not only for the students, but also for the colleges.
What’s also making it a challenge is that the colleges are not going to be able to be set up. The FAFSA is not going to be processed potentially until the end of January. It’s quite possible that the colleges won’t even see your data until the end of January and so that means that everything gets pushed back. You may not see your financial aid award until just about April 1st, because these colleges are going to be crunched to package all these students between probably around mid-February, right in through April 1st.
JH: You mentioned the FAFSA. Some students are applying to colleges that would require the CSS Profile as well. How do the changes to the FAFSA affect the Profile?
GC: There are about 250 private colleges, particularly more selective colleges, that require the CSS Profile form to give out their money. That form has been out since October 1st and the CSS Profile formula has not changed.
JH: You mentioned changes to the FAFSA form. One is how business and family farms are going to be considered. Can you talk a little bit about that?
GC: Sure. Historically, only businesses that had more than 100 employees needed to be reported on the FAFSA form. That’s changed and it’s going to have a potentially negative effect for small business owners in particular.
Now, any substantial assets of the business and any debt need to be reported. So if you’re a contractor or a landscaper and you have a couple of trucks and some equipment, you do need to report that. Those assets are going to be treated very similar to personal assets in the formula. If you have a small business and you do it out of your home with a computer, you don’t really need to report anything.
JH: What tax year should students and parents use for the FAFSA form?
GC: Colleges use what the federal government calls “prior-prior year”. If you’re going to the school in the fall of 2024, they’ll be using your 2022 tax returns. For the sophomore year, they’ll be using your 2023 returns. So you should have all the information on your tax returns from prior year. And, in fact, one of the nice things about the new FAFSA is the ability to transition that information right from the IRS to the FAFSA. When you start the FAFSA and give consent to be able to access the tax returns from your IRS, that tax information will go right onto the FAFSA.
JH: Well, that sounds like it will be really helpful and probably cut down on some of the manual input errors.
Students who are filing this year are seniors in high school, they’re going to use their 2022 return this year. Next year when they are freshmen in college, they’re then gonna be sophomores using their 2023 tax return.
Students have to file the FAFSA form each year that they want financial aid, right? So the reality is high school seniors, college freshmen, sophomores, and juniors are the ones who are filing a FAFSA form this year for undergraduate aid next year.
GC: That’s right. You re-apply for financial aid every single year and you’re always using, as you progress through college, that tax return from two years behind that is really based on what the school year is.
JH: Great. Let me ask you this. If a parent has multiple children in college at the same time, do they need to file separate FAFSA forms for each one? Or can they do them together? How does that work?
GC: Each child that’s in college needs their own financial aid form. Parents will use their own login – the same one – for each student. But separate financial aid forms need to be done for each student. And if you already have a student in college, one of the unfortunate things is that old information that you had entered previously is not retained in the system. That will change in future years, but because they’re transitioning systems, parents are going to have to start from scratch with some of the basic information about your address and your Social Security numbers and other basic information about the student. Where in future years you’ll be able to roll most of that year to year.
JH: I didn’t want to get into this, Gregg, but you just said something really important, and this might be a pitfall for some folks. You said “when you log in.” New students, the high school seniors right now, need an FSA ID. But can parents use their FSA ID from last year for this year’s FAFSA?
GC: Yes, those FSA ID’s are still active. Parents should verify it. One of the things that we’ve seen is that the federal government is making a lot of people reset their passwords. So when you go in there to use it for the first time, you may have to reset your password. What I’d recommend even before you start to fill the form, you can do this now. Verify your password is set, and check that your information is correct. Then you’ll be ready to go when you access the new form.
JH: That’s great advice. Student aid.gov is where you can go to get a FAFSA ID. So the student needs an FSA ID as well as the contributor. Gregg, let’s talk about this idea of the contributor. It is somewhat new.
Well, it’s actually not new because in the past students needed someone else’s financial information to support their FAFSA. But we now named them the Contributor. I get this question all the time. What happens when the parents are not together. Maybe there’s a divorce situation or something’s happened. Sally’s living with the mom and the dad is living somewhere else. Sally’s mom makes $60,000 a year. Sally’s living with her mom who is claiming Sally as a dependent on her taxes. The dad is providing child support of $75,000 a year for Sally. In that case then, who has to file the FAFSA form?
GC: This is one of the big changes on the new FAFSA. The person who provides more financial support is the one that needs to fill out the FAFSA form. They are the contributor. It doesn’t matter who the student lives with. It doesn’t matter who claims the student on the tax returns. In a divorce situation, who provides more financial support.
JH: Am I right in remembering that the test period for who provides more financial support is over the last 12 months?
GC: It’s in the last 12 months.
JH: Let’s have one last step down the detail chart here. In the situation I said before, what if the husband’s been remarried and his wife’s working. So now you have Sally living with mom. The father is divorced but remarried. His wife is required to provide financial information too?
GC: That’s right. The stepparent of the student who is filling out the financial aid form is required to also report their information. Now, there are a couple of interesting things going back to the earlier question about who provides more financial support. It’s only the biological parents that are being compared. So let’s say that one of the parents is remarried. And maybe the stepparent is providing a lot of help too financially. That is supposed to be isolated in the evaluation of who is the parent that is responsible for it. But once you’ve made that declaration of who the custodial parent is, that stepparent is back in play. They are going to look at the combined assets of that couple as well as the income of the stepparent.
JH: Well, as you’re going through all that, Gregg, I’m thinking to myself, your phone is going to ring off the hook because folks are going to need guidance. Let’s say that life has happened now for a year and a half or two, and something has happened. How do families deal with a situation where their financial condition has materially changed?
GC: The FAFSA form is going to automatically pull in your 2022 income, but for many families their income is not steady and maybe their income did fall. This has to be a direct communication to the colleges. Reach out to all the schools that your student is considering, or if the students are returning, students directly reach out to them and let them know what your 2023 income looks like. You may ultimately have to manually provide them with a copy of your tax returns or W2s. Be prepared to appeal any unique or extenuating circumstances and a change in income, especially if the income has gone down. One other tip. One of the big changes in the financial aid form this year is that they no longer give you the benefit of having two or more children in college at the same time.
JH: Yeah, that’s a big deal.
GC: And that is going to disrupt the potential eligibility for a lot of students. I recommend communicating that to the college to explain that the student has a sibling. And we pay $20,000 a year for that student to go to college. There’s a possibility that just like with the change in income or high expenses or medical expenses that the colleges can factor that in offline under a program called Professional Judgment. I highly recommend communicating any unique circumstances like that in a very artful letter to the colleges.
JH: That’s great advice. At mycollegecorner.com, there are blog articles, several of them about some of these details. There’s also a webinar, Gregg, that you, I and Mark Salisbury did on the new FAFSA. There’s a Student Aid Index estimator so you can go up there and get an idea of what your student’s SAI might look like.
Gregg, I’m going to ask a bonus question. Are there any other pitfalls in this current FAFSA form?
GC: I think one of the big challenges this year, in particular, is that because of the delay in when the FAFSA is going to be processed, you won’t even see the report for a while. The school won’t be able to see it until the end of January. You won’t be able to make changes if you’ve made a mistake. So be very, very careful with all these questions because you could submit it and it will sit there for it could be a month before anything happens with it and you’ll be able to go in and make a change.
I would particularly give you a warning sign on this: The way that some of the yes/no questions are worded, if you’re not careful, you may answer a question that is supposed to be yes as a no, or vice versa. And so if you answer that question wrong, the logic will take you down a path that will make it so that you have an incomplete FAFSA. When you start to see these yes and no questions, be careful to make sure not to automatically click yes. Sometimes the answer is no, which is the second answer, but intuitively like you just click yes, because it’s just the first choice. So be very careful about that.
One other thing, John. You mentioned the Student Aid Index calculator on My College Corner. I am telling people to use that as a point of reference when they submit the FAFSA form. I would recommend doing this on MyCollegeCorner.com as well. If those numbers aren’t close, you may have made a mistake on the FAFSA form. Use it as a backup, as a validation. The form is new, the formula is new. The transition from the IRS is new so I get worried about it. Until I see this working properly, I want to say validate.
JH: Yeah, Gregg, validating is so important. The Department of Education released their SAI calculator in mid-September/early October and it was wrong. They had to take it down. Somebody came to us and said your numbers are different from the department’s numbers. How can that be? We went back and we redid it by hand and saw that our numbers were right, and we were able to tell that person where the mistake was in their calculation. It’s really difficult. There are all these different tables and you have to get them just right. You have to know what you’re looking for.
Using backups to make sure that the numbers are looking right is really great. You know, trust but verify.
I’ll just ask folks if you’re interested in seeing more of what Gregg and some of our other Ask the Expert contributors have to say, please friend the My College Corner Facebook page and also subscribe to the My College Corner YouTube channel. There are lots of resources out there. Go to the College Affordable website it is: collegeaffordable.org. Gregg, is that correct?
GC: That’s right. That’s the nonprofit. And then campusbound.com, which will explain the difference. One-on-one services that we can provide.
JH: That’s excellent. Well, keep up the good fight, Gregg. I hope that your phone is really charged because you’re going to be on it quite a lot in the next couple weeks or so. And again, thank you for contributing to My College Corner.
GC: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
This transcript was edited for content and length.