"Everyone should fill out the FAFSA," says Beth V. Walker, founder of College Funding Coaches, a college finance planning firm headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "There are a lot of parents who think they make too much money and that they're not going to qualify for anything, but I think it's a surprise to many people to know that the merit-based aid is handed out many times through the need-based door."
Last year, all dependent undergrads, regardless of their family's income, could qualify for at least $27,000 in unsubsidized Stafford loans over four years, reported the Department of Education, while families with adjusted gross incomes of $60,000 or less can also usually expect some federal grant aid, says Walker. Unlike student loans, grants need not be repaid, though certain conditions may apply. Before filing, families can get an estimate of their EFC by using the "FAFSA4caster" tool at FAFSA.ed.gov.
Families can take action. While most families can't change their income, they can maximize their federal aid eligibility by filing the FAFSA as close to Jan. 1 as possible and by shifting or spending assets held in the student's name.
"Student assets are assessed at 20 percent," says Jay Murray, president of Solutions for Tuition, a college planning firm in Lone Tree, Colorado, meaning that for every dollar in an account in a student's name, the government will subtract 20 cents from the student's aid package. This starts with need-based grants. "Parental assets are assessed at (up to) 5.6 percent."
The exception, Murray says, is 529 plans. These are assessed at the parental rate regardless of whether they're held in a parent's or student's name.
Gary Carpenter, executive director of the National College Advocacy Group, a nonprofit organization in Syracuse, New York, says families can also increase their aid eligibility by knowing which investment vehicles the government doesn't take into consideration.
"The FAFSA form does not assess the family home. It does not assess retirement accounts. It does not assess life insurance policies or annuities," says Carpenter. "Also, they do not assess personal assets like automobiles, clothing, furniture -- none of that is assessed."
Families looking to shift assets from assessable accounts to sheltered ones can do so by maxing out their retirement accounts, paying down the mortgage on their primary home and purchasing personal items the student will need before filing the FAFSA. These personal items can include a computer or dorm supplies. Families who need those assets to be available for college costs can simply move funds from an account in the student's name to a 529 plan or one held in the parent's name.
Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, adds that students should also alert their school's financial aid office about expenses that aren't considered on the FAFSA.
"For example, if you fill out (the FAFSA) and your parents made a reasonable income last year and then they lose their jobs, you want to be sure you go to the financial aid office," she says. "Tell them this because they can adjust your aid award to account for those unfortunate new circumstances. That's terrifically important."
By letting your aid office know about factors that aren't included on the FAFSA, such as medical expenses, death in the family, divorce or parental job loss, and by providing documentation, families can keep aid officers abreast of their current financial situation and increase their chances of landing college aid.