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Countdown to College: Facts and figures about financial aid

Many college applications are signed, sealed and submitted, and now it’s time to move onto the serious stuff: money. Who doesn’t want to get the very best education at the very lowest price? Timing has a lot to do with the price tag you’ll pay.

There are two basic financial aid forms: the federal government’s FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), www.fafsa.ed.gov; and the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Financial Aid Profile, www.cssprofile.org, which is run by the College Board, makers of the SAT and SAT Subject Tests.

FAFSA and FAFSA4caster

All families with college-bound seniors should complete the FAFSA, which becomes available Jan. 1 of the student’s senior year. Funds are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so you are best served by completing the application as early in January as possible. You should submit early, even if you haven’t completed your tax forms, because you can estimate using your previous year’s tax information.

You can get a head start by filling out the FAFSA4caster (on the FAFSA website in the “Thinking About College?” box) now. There are also some great videos (“Myths about Financial Aid,” “Overview of the Financial Aid Process”) and tutorials if you are just getting started. Families with sophomores and juniors also should complete the FAFSA4caster so you can more effectively plan your college list and campus visits.

The FAFSA and FAFSA4caster will estimate your family’s eligibility for Federal student aid. Both the FAFSA and the FAFSA4caster are free, fairly simple to complete and don’t require any specialized knowledge in accounting or tax laws.

Once completed, the FAFSA4caster will provide you with college specific financial information with the link to College Navigator and will show your estimated maximum Direct Subsidized Loan, Direct Unsubsidized Loan eligibility, Federal Work-Study amount (if any), and your estimated Federal Pell Grant amount (if any).

You may qualify for more money than you think. The FAFSA does not include home equity or retirement savings.

CSS Profile

More than 200, mostly private, colleges require the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA. The CSS Profile awards non-federal student aid funds and is more detailed than the FAFSA.

The profile considers information such as home equity, the income/assets of a noncustodial parent, the cash value of insurance plans, private school tuition and medical and dental expenses.

The profile is available now and you’ll need to check the required submission deadline for each college. The CSS Profile website has an interactive presentation that you should watch before you start your application.

While the FAFSA is free, the profile charges $25 for the first report sent to a college and $16 for additional reports. Fee waivers are available; check with your high school counselor.

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website at www.CollegeAdmissionsStrategies.com.