5 tips on reading your Student Aid Report

"The numbers on the FAFSA form determine how much aid the school gives the student, too," says Bovenizer. "If changes are needed, students should do it as quickly as possible."

Seek judgment

Student Aid Report information is based on a family's financial circumstance the year before the year of attendance. That means for the 2010-2011 school year, a student's aid eligibility will be based on tax returns from 2009.

"If a dramatic change occurred between that tax year and now, like an unusual medical expense, students should inform the school," says Ronald Johnson, director of financial aid for the University of California, Los Angeles. "In cases of extenuating circumstances, schools can adjust the aid package."

A student with an extraordinary circumstance that would significantly reduce his or her family's income, such as a divorce, a parent's death or a job loss, can have his or her aid package re-evaluated by the school. A "professional judgment" review by a financial aid officer is only done in extreme circumstances and requires students to provide documentation, says Johnson.

Verify it

As a quality control measure, the government selects one in three FAFSA forms for a process called "verification," according to the Web site Students who find an asterisk next to their estimated family contribution have been selected for verification and must produce additional documentation to verify their FAFSA figures.

"We try to tell families that it's not akin to a federal tax audit. We're just making sure that their FAFSA is accurate," says Bovenizer. "The main areas we look at in verification are adjustable gross income, untaxed income, the number of college students in the household, federal tax obligation and family size."

Bovenizer adds that students selected for verification will be required to complete a work sheet available through their aid office and to submit a signed copy of the parents' tax returns. Additional documentation could include W-2s, proof of child support payments and Social Security benefits, as well as information on tax-deferred pension and savings plans.

"Schools usually won't distribute federal funds until students have completed the verification process, so they should do it as early as possible," says Bovenizer. "On or around April 15 is ideal."

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