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24 Dec 2016

10 Things to Know About the New FAFSA Changes

As a New Year’s reminder, the U.S. Department of Education made the release date for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) three months earlier – to October 1st, 2016, from January 1st as in years past.  The following is a post from Lynn O’Shaughnessy of The College Solution that highlights the changes in the financial aid process.

Big financial aid changes have arrived for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE.  If you’re hoping that your child qualifies for financial aid, you need to know what these major new developments that kicked off this month.

Millions of parents annually fill out the FAFSA. Completing this aid application is necessary to qualify for federal and state aid, as well as institutional financial aid at most colleges and universities.

After the federal government announced the upcoming changes last year, the College Board, the creator of the PROFILE, which is the other main financial aid application, decided to also implement them. Roughly 230 mostly private colleges and universities use the PROFILE to determine who gets their institutional grants.

Here are 10 key points that you need to know about the new financial aid developments:

No. 1:

The changes are expected to represent a big win for parents by making the financial aid process less stressful and hectic while providing parents with more time to make incredibly important financial decisions.

No. 2:

The changes will impact more than parents applying for need-based aid. The new rules will also have a ripple effect on higher-income families who will not qualify for need-based aid and instead will be looking for merit scholarships.

No. 3:

One of the big changes is the requirement that parents use two-year-old tax returns when filing for financial aid. You’ll see this change referred to as prior-prior year (PPY) taxes.

For new and returning students heading to college next fall (2017-2018 school year), parents will complete their financial aid forms using 2015 tax returns. Up until now, parents have always used one-year-old tax returns.

Families seeking aid for students enrolled in the 2018-2019 school year will use 2016 tax returns. Students heading to school in 2019-2020 will rely on 2017 taxes.

No. 4:

A major benefit of the switch to older tax returns is that the financial aid process will no longer be rushed.

Historically, the tax season and the financial aid season have uncomfortably overlapped. Parents had to wait until January 1 to file the FAFSA, but to complete it they had to finish their tax return.

Taxpayers, however, usually wouldn’t have the documents they needed to file taxes quickly. Despite this reality, some state aid programs have imposed early deadlines – as early as mid-February – and some schools give out money on a first-come, first-served basis.

Under this time crunch, many parents were forced to use estimated tax figures so they could complete the FAFSA and PROFILE. If they estimated wrong, they ran the risk that their financial aid awards would be withdrawn or reduced.

No. 5:

Two-year-old taxes are not optional. I’ve had parents ask me if they can use their latest income tax returns instead of the older ones. This is a question that tends to come from parents who enjoyed a particularly good financial year in 2015 while income in 2016 declined.

When aiming for aid eligibility, it’s better to earn a lower income in the so-called base year. Parents, however, can’t pick which tax return to use. The use of two-year-old tax returns is not optional.

No. 6:

If their current financial status doesn’t reflect their 2015 taxes, parents can ask a school for a professional judgment. In an appeal the family can ask that 2015 income not be considered or that it won’t carry as much weight. I would recommend making an appeal after a student has applied, but before receiving the financial aid award.

No. 7:

Parents can now file the FAFSA three months earlier than the traditional January 1 start date. The first date to file was October 1. Parents can also file the PROFILE beginning in October.

Parents will be able to file for financial aid nearly a year before their child will be in college. This early start can be advantageous for families because it’s anticipated that many schools will provide students with financial aid packages sooner. Early notification will give parents and students more time to review offers and make smart decisions. Also, if families get inadequate awards earlier in the process, a child will still have time to apply to other schools.

No. 8:

An industry survey of nearly 550 college administrators released in the spring revealed that 69% of schools said they would be releasing financial aid verdicts earlier beginning with the current admission cycle or next year’s.

The same survey revealed that 80% of administrators believed that schools that did not shift their admission cycle earlier would be at a competitive disadvantage. Nearly a third of schools said they were exploring adding the additional application choices of early decision and/or early action, which allows students to apply before those choosing regular admission applications.

No. 9:

With the admission cycle getting an earlier start. families need to be even more mindful of admission and financial aid deadlines.

Ideally students should know before their senior year in high school starts what schools they intend to apply to. In reaction, many colleges are planning to reach out aggressively to teenagers in their junior year when they have previously reserved the big push for seniors.

No. 10:

With the new time frame for filing for financial aid, it’s extremely important to understand what the financial aid deadlines are for each school on your child’s list.


11 Sep 2016

How to Write a Stand-Out Application Essay

‘Tis the season when seniors have college admissions and essays on their minds. I found the article below, from Kim Lifton, president of essay consultant Wow Writing Workshop, to be quite valuable. It points out a number of key points that might help overcome writer’s block.

Hint: The topic’s not as important as you think!

Many students get excited over ideas they think will get attention inside the admissions office, without considering what the college essay prompt is really asking.

At Wow, we tell our students they are starting in the wrong place when they come to us with an idea! That comes later in the process, and starting with an idea can lead to mistakes.

You’ll avoid basic mistakes if you set aside your idea and start the college essay at the beginning of the writing process: Understanding the prompt. We talk to admissions officers all the time, and they all say the same thing. They want you to answer the question. Many students fail to do this, year after year.

To answer any prompt correctly, ask yourself this question: What do I want the readers of my application to know about me apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Think about what they already know about you (primarily accomplishments), then consider what they don’t know yet (characteristics or traits).

Your answer is key to your success on the essay. It’s your opportunity to shine, to offer readers some insight into who you are beyond your grades, test scores and activities.

Colleges want you to dig a little deeper than usual to show some insight and reflection. How do you learn how to reflect? Think about your best traits and qualities.

Are you industrious? Resourceful? Curious? Hard working? Once you know which traits and qualities you want to share, read the college essay prompt. Then find a story that answers the prompt and illustrates those traits.

Take a look at this Common App prompt: that we parsed for our students. Our coaches use the same approach with students completing other Common App, Coalition, ApplyTexas, California and supplemental essay prompts.

Common App Prompt 1

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

The key word in this prompt is “meaningful,” but even that word can seem big and overwhelming. What makes an experience meaningful?

Ultimately, your essay is not about your background, identity, interest, talent or experience; it’s about you. Why is this aspect of your identity, background or experience so meaningful? Have you learned something about yourself?

Admissions officers read these essays to find out something they don’t already know about you.

They know your grades. They can see which sports and clubs you’ve joined from your application. They know what types of courses are offered at your school, and whether your neighborhood is wealthy, poor or somewhere in the middle. They can even figure out which types of books you’ve read if you took American Literature. Your transcript provides them with a wealth of information.

They don’t know how anything you did during high school affected you, who you met along the way or why you cannot get a particular piece of music out of your head. They have no idea how you have changed or why you might be a good fit for their school.

Your challenge is to write an essay that illustrates something meaningful about you.

Kim Lifton
President – Wow Writing Workshop

1 Jul 2016

College Can Be More Affordable Than You Think

In a continuing effort to bring interesting stories to our current and past clients, I’m sharing a heart warming article that I read in today’s Boston Globe that points to the feasibility of achieving that goal. In this case, the parent became an employee of a college; his 5 kids enjoyed free tuition once they qualified for admission.


I’m not recommending that parents become janitors in colleges. However, I am recommending that you take every option into consideration that is available when it comes to your student attending college.

1. If a student is intent on a particular school, examine the financial aid award. If it falls short, then appeal. If it includes a PLUS (Parent Loan), don’t include it as a resource. I don’t consider it to be financial aid….just a way for the college to “fill” the award. If parents spring for a PLUS the 1st year, they’ll most likely have to resort to it in subsequent years, and it’s not worth jeopardizing their retirement years to pay the college bill now.

2. Take a 2nd look at in-state colleges. They can end up costing 1/3 to half the cost of going to a private college. And if the student has the grades to qualify for the “Honors Program” they can get the very best education possible (depending on their own effort, and the particular school).

3. If the student is open to state schools, often times a state, outside of their own, may cost just a little more, and is often the same (or less) than their own state.

4. Go for those non-need based scholarships (after the need-based financial aid applications are done)…it’s hard work, but it is real. Start with your high school guidance list of non-profits, then expand to lists such as the College Board Scholarship, and FinAid databases.

5. If the resources for the ideal situation are not there, then consider alternatives such as commuting to college, or going to a community college for the first 2 years and then completing the degree requirements at a state or private institution.

15 Jun 2016

Data & Insights to Improve College Decision-Making

It’s either decision time, now that the awards are in, or research time for those starting their college search.

College Cost Cutter is a valuable decision making tool that advisers use with their students and clients to analyze and compare college offers and better understand if a student’s financial aid offer is reasonable. It is available to you at the following URL:


Disregard the section designated for Advisers, and focus on the Parent and Student sections. In addition, there are many interesting articles available relating to “Best Colleges For…”, College Rankings by majors, and many more.

Hit the “Get Started Now” box for use of this valuable tool.