As per my promise from last week’s blog post, the semi-witty “What’s In Your Wallet?”, this week’s blog post is about financial aid.

I started writing another semi-witty essay, with cool references to the 1980’s and Star Wars and the particular song referenced in the title.  But I came to realize that financial aid is confusing enough, most folks think it is even more confusing than it really is and most of what I need to tell you about financial aid, in general, can be summed up in a few bullet points.

Saying that – click here if the title has you humming a certain tune in your head.

So, here goes.  Financial Aid 101.

1) Fill out the FAFSA. Regardless of whether you think you’ll get any financial assistance, go to www.fafsa.ed.gov and fill out the FAFSA form.

2) Try to do so as early as reasonably possible. The form goes “live” on Janaury 1, but the worksheet is already up there.

3) A big key to doing it early is knowing your tax information.  So, if 2010 was alot like 2009, you can probably estimate pretty well based on the 2009 info.  If 2010 was not the same (job loss, promotion, divorce, lottery winnings), then I would strongly suggest completing your 1040 pretty early this winter.

4) The form is FREE.  There is a ton of FREE good advice available online (I’ll list 5 key sites in item #5).  College financial aid counselors and high school counselors are FREE (well, in terms of giving financial aid advice, I mean).  Many states offer FREE counseling via a website, email or a phone center.  Don’t pay good money that you could use for a college education to find out how much money you can get, when you could have obtained the same information for FREE.  Did I mention FREE? And I will be glad to provide Financial Aid information, guidance, advice for – say it with me now – FREE.

5) There are 5 key websites I would suggest to you. www.fafsa.ed.gov is the federal website).  If you are in New Jersey, the state site is www.hesaa.org.  Two great private sites are www.finaid.org and www.fastweb.com.  The fifth site would be the financial aid section of your college’s website.

6) ASK QUESTIONS. Because it’s important.  And because the answers are – yes, sir – FREE.  And because, oftentimes, financial aid folks are very busy and you may have to ask twice to get results.

7) Understand that the FAFSA is NOT the 1040 form.  It does not come with possible schedules.  It is MUCH more cut-and-dried.  Anyone selling you the idea that they can find more money if they complete your FAFSA for you really means more money for them, not for you.

8) The FAFSA process is “equally unfair”.  I talk about that in a little more detail in the original version of the blog (see below), but basically the calculations make sense, but they assume you have spent like someone living in the 1960’s or 1970s.  So – the formula is fairly equal, but it assumes you all have saved much more than you probably have.

9) Most people think that their situation is “unique”.  While it, generally, is not, it IS personal.  My experience is that financial aid questions are rarely asked in public, but often asked in private. That’s fine by me.  My email is ccrmichael@gmail.com and I encourage you to reach out if you do have questions.  And I’ll answer them.  For – say it with me – FREE.

10) Student Loans are considered financial aid by the feds.  One of the reasons to fill out the FAFSA – without it, you can’t get a Stafford Loan.

11) Click on this link for a five minute video (produced by FASTWEB). It will provide you with a basic outline of what you need to do, but it is also pretty funny.

As always, I welcome your comments, your ratings, your Facebook posts and your emails.  I can be reached at CCRMichael@gmail.com, on Facebook at “College Counseling for the Rest of Us”, on Twitter @MichaelCCR and by cell at 908-403-3819.

And for those of you who want to know what direction I was originally going with this article, here’s the 1st half of the original piece – Star Wars references and all:

This is the story of a young admissions counselor who was doing such a great job recruiting students that someone decided he could be a Director of Financial Aid. This was a time (the mid-1990’s) when College Admissions and Financial Aid departments were being combined into these things known as “Enrollment Management” Departments.

To train this person in the ways of financial aid, they sent him off to Dagobah to learn from the wisest of financial aid professionals.

Well, not exactly Dagobah, but close.  Plattsburgh, NY consists of – or did, as of the mid 1990’s –  a closed military base, a college and…well, a closed military base and a college.  That was about it.  It was the perfect place to learn about Expected Family Contributions, professional judgment, independent status, cost of attendance and all of those really cool financial aid terms.  And eventually, I could lift star fighters out of swamps.  Or put together a financial aid package within the rules and regulations of the federal and state governments.  Whichever you find more believable.

When you calculate an EFC (Expected Family Contribution) manually – as I had the pleasure of doing those 3 days in Dagobah – it actually makes sense.  Yes, it assumes you live in the 1970’s and don’t own a 3rd flat screen TV and a 3rd car.  But the formula makes sense; it just assumes you have saved more than almost anybody in the U.S. really does.  It’s “equally unfair”, as it were.  But it is based on real numbers and real calculations.

Luke: What’s in there? Yoda: Only what you take with you.

Luke: I can’t believe itYoda: That is why you fail.

Help you with this, I can. Over the course of the next few months, I will post several blogs to “talk you through” the process.  And you have an open invitation to ask ANY financial aid questions you have through the Facebook page, email or by phone.

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