Monthly Archives: February 2012

Our long and winding road of financial aid deadlines: FAFSA, Profile, 1040

Done. I’ve completed the financial aid forms. Not a moment too soon:  most of Mod Squad Pete’s colleges required all the paperwork by March 1st.

  • Friday, I picked up our completed tax returns from the accountant.
  • Saturday, I cleared the desk and ignored all sorts of Saturday chores (and fun stuff) to get the submissions done.
  • Monday, I mailed the final packages, scheduled to arrive today, February 29 (thank goodness for leap years).

I’m not whining — this is all in aid of requesting college funding from various sources other than our own checkbook.

I am writing the paper trail here, in case others want to read about what it takes —  and so I’ll remember some of this in two years when we go through similar steps for M. S. Julie.

Another thing to remember:  Pete applied to six colleges, each with its own detailed specifics on required forms, deadlines, and methods of submission. This in itself is the best argument for keeping Julie’s final application list lean and focused.

November 1, 2011

Pete submitted three Early Action applications; two colleges set the financial aid deadline for March 1 (same as for their Regular Action apps). One college (College A), with a November 1st Early Action deadline, required the CSS Profile that same day, as well as a paper copy of our signed 2010 1040 (including all schedules and forms).

Completing the Profile in the fall of 2011 for the 2012-13 school year required three sets of finances:

  1. Actual 2010 figures from the filed 1040,
  2. estimated 2011 figures (before the year is over), and
  3. guessed-at 2012 figures (before the year is begun).

This might be easier for households with incomes that stay fairly steady; this presents a bit of a nightmare for households with incomes that vary, such as small business owners, consultants, realtors, farmers, salespeople, etc.

January 2012

The FAFSA became available January 1st; all schools recommend it be submitted as soon as possible. Some states set a deadline in mid February. All six of Pete’s colleges required the FAFSA submission by March 1.

Completing the FAFSA requires figures from the 2011 tax returns. We provided as much information as we could to our accountant, including non-official data that would be confirmed by 1099s later, and asked for a draft return.

February 2012

With a draft 1040 in hand I submitted the FAFSA on February 1st.

Mid-February, Pete received an email from the Profile, referring to College A’s need for our 2011 tax return. The email linked to CollegeBoard‘s iDOC site. After signing in, the site presented Pete the list of forms College A required along with the cover sheet to be mailed to an address in Illinois by March 1. Remember ‘do not fold, spindle, or mutilate’? See these instructions in the right-hand column:

College Board iDOC cover sheet

Click to enlarge.

Also mid-February we received our final 1099, sent it off to the accountant, and awaited our final returns. Those were done February 24th. That’s the earliest I’ve ever filed taxes, and I suspect we’ll be filing in February for, say, the next nine or ten years.

Looking at the specific requirements for six colleges, here’s what we had to file:

  • College A: Profile and 2010 returns, Nov 1; FAFSA, Feb 1; iDOC submission [by mail] of completed 2011 returns, Feb 27.
  • College B:  FAFSA only, Feb 1.
  • College C:  FAFSA, Feb 1; Profile, Feb 25; completed 2011 returns by fax*, Feb 25.
  • College D:  FAFSA, Feb 1; Profile, Feb 25; completed 2011 returns by mail, Feb 27.
  • College E  FAFSA, Feb 1; Profile, Feb 25; iDOC submission [by mail] of completed 2011 returns, Feb 27
  • College F:  FAFSA, Feb 1; Profile, Feb 25. 2011 returns will be requested if student accepted.

* We had a fax machine in our home office from 1992 until 2007 when we chose to not replace the no-longer-working machine since we can sign and scan documents. This required a trip to Staples, much ingenuity from the print shop manager to actually get 40 pages to feed, and a $48.00 bill.

March 1, 2012

Within a few days I’ll ask Pete to sign on to each of the college student information systems to check for any further instructions.

For now, though, I think Pete can just focus on the rest of his non-college life and I can do the same. Hurrah.

Let me know, in comments, if you faced any different or additional requirements.

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Good luck, Pete. And all other seniors trying out for a roster, a role, a program.

No matter how good it sounds for a college prospect to have a great admissions ‘hook’, there comes a day when that hook either works or not.

The really good athlete — not ranked in the top recruits with all the coaches calling, but good enough to play college sports — has to figure out the recruitment process, where he or she can fit into a program, and continue to produce attractive stats.

Relaxin' with The Miles Davis Quintet

Image via Wikipedia.

The high school musical star, if he or she wants to pursue a musical theatre major, has to find the right program and audition to get in (never mind trying out for roles once in the program).

So it goes with musicians. This week Mod Squad Pete walked into a room with a piano to audition for entrance into a music program.

It’s a tough get, the acceptance-to-audition ratio is daunting. We told him the same as when he considered applying to very selective schools:  you’ve earned the right to try, you will always wonder if you could have made it, go for it. Just remember that your life and your future happiness do not revolve around whether or not you get in.

For now, I’ll wish him — and all the other students working on getting in to the program they want, interviewing for a scholarship slot, or keeping their stats competitive — the best, and I’ll share one of his favorite songs, “You’re My Everything” by the Miles Davis Quintet. Here’s what he wrote in one of his essays:

Red Garland, the pianist on the track, starts out with a simple improvised introduction, but Miles calls him off. Davis simply says, “Play some block chords, Red,” and the result is superb, culminating with an amazing turnaround: bam bu-dam ba bu-dum. It leads perfectly into the next section. Miles’ and John Coltrane‘s solos are great, but what makes this song exquisite is Garland’s introduction.

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Who should complete the FAFSA? What about parents of newborns?

Augustana College (Illinois)

Image via Wikipedia

Most of the financial aid and college counselors write about the need for all college students/college student families to complete the FAFSA for three very basic reasons:

  1. There is no way of knowing whether you qualify for financial aid without completing it.
  2. Many non need-based scholarships still want a FAFSA completed.
  3. Even if you/your student don’t qualify for much financial aid, the FAFSA is required for any work-study programs.

What about anyone else?

Kent Barnds, Vice President of Admissions at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, tweeted this in early February:

Great idea — even though the admissions staff isn’t in charge of financial aid, they must have to deal with questions about the required forms. I responded to Kent’s tweet, suggesting (as I’ve written here) that you can only learn how to do it by completing the form. Kent agreed and gave another great reason:

Ah, yes, the shocking Expected Family Contribution.
As Kim Clark wrote for US News Education, in 3 Ways the Government Over Estimates Your Ability to Pay for College: “Parents who fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, are often shocked by how much the federal government thinks they can afford to pay for college when they receive their official “Expected Family Contribution,” or EFC.  [Hat tip to Grace Nunez at the Cost of College blog.] It’s certainly worth reading the explanations, but here are the basic reasons:
  1. Outdated budget estimates.
  2. No regional adjustments.
  3. Unrealistic family spending assumptions.

These policies mean the EFC is “at best, a very harsh assessment of families’ ability to pay,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of At worst, he says, it is “somewhat unrealistic…and archaic.”

So:  shocking, unrealistic, archaic. Who else should we invite to share this experience?
Writing for The Quick and the Ed blog last fall, Rachel Fishman suggested that parents of newborns should complete the FAFSA. See And Baby Makes EFC.
Since EFC is calculated mostly using adjusted gross income, marital status, family size, and number of family members in college—information that is often gleaned from a tax return—any person who files a tax return with a child dependent listed should get an EFC estimate.
Rachel urged parents to understand how college is financed, recommending self-advocacy, and also made the point that early awareness helps to set the expectation:
A policy like this would be the government’s way of saying to families, it’s not a question of if your child is going to college, it’s when, and here’s a tool to get you there.
I doubt my nieces and nephews with preschool children would want to complete a college financial aid form while they’re still concerned with potty-training.
However, when a friend recently wrote to say she is worried about being able to pay for college for her children, now middle-schoolers, I thought about that article and whether it would be helpful to know more now about what the colleges will expect you to contribute then.
I’d rather be shocked ahead of time know now. What about you?
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Got a numbers geek student? The future for Big Data is… big.

In case you missed it, the New York Times offered two perspectives of Big Data over the past couple of Sundays. Relevance to thinking about colleges? Here’s one friend’s response to the Target article:

I’m also eager to share it with my son because I liked all the references to how valuable math skills are and the cool and sexy ways math is used out there in the real world.

Moneyball (film)

Image via Wikipedia

First, The Age of Big Data, by Steve Lohr. Most non-statisticians understand new uses of data by having read (or viewed) Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Another fine example is statistician Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog (now owned by the NYT) which he launched during the 2008 Presidential campaign (after he developed new baseball stats for Baseball Prospectus).

Lohr’s points about the ever-growing use of Big Data make this an article I’ll ask all three of our kids to read, even though only one is a real math geek. This will have an impact on their work, no matter the career choice.

The story is similar in fields as varied as science and sports, advertising and public health — a drift toward data-driven discovery and decision-making. “It’s a revolution,” says Gary King, director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. “We’re really just getting under way. But the march of quantification, made possible by enormous new sources of data, will sweep through academia, business and government. There is no area that is going to be untouched.”

To grasp the potential impact of Big Data, look to the microscope, says Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. The microscope, invented four centuries ago, allowed people to see and measure things as never before — at the cellular level. It was a revolution in measurement.

Data measurement, Professor Brynjolfsson explains, is the modern equivalent of the microscope. Google searches, Facebook posts and Twitter messages, for example, make it possible to measure behavior and sentiment in fine detail and as it happens.

In business, economics and other fields, Professor Brynjolfsson says, decisions will increasingly be based on data and analysis rather than on experience and intuition. “We can start being a lot more scientific,” he observes.

I heard about the following Sunday’s Times magazine cover story, How Companies Learn Your Secrets, from Mod Squad Julie on Friday night. Seems the hook — a parent learning from Target that his teen daughter was pregnant — made the Facebook rounds very quickly.

The article, written by Charles Duhigg, presents any number of topics for discussion — privacy, habit forming and changing, marketing cleaning products to American women, etc. — but front and center is the pivotal role of the statistician.

Andrew Pole had just started working as a statistician for Target in 2002, when two colleagues from the marketing department stopped by his desk to ask an odd question: “If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that?”

Pole has a master’s degree in statistics and another in economics, and has been obsessed with the intersection of data and human behavior most of his life. His parents were teachers in North Dakota, and while other kids were going to 4-H, Pole was doing algebra and writing computer programs. “The stereotype of a math nerd is true,” he told me when I spoke with him last year. “I kind of like going out and evangelizing analytics.”

What do you think? Is this the best current answer to the math student’s question, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?”


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Good news for the educated-college-consumer: Know before you go!

One of my goals in reading about higher education is for our household to become better educated consumers before we spend a small fortune to educate three children.

This has led to discussions about:

  • how much money we think it makes sense to spend for a Bachelor’s Degree,
  • how many years it should take for a student to earn a BA,
  • which colleges retain more students,
  • which colleges actually have more students highly engaged in learning, and more.

Those discussions have led us to dig deeply into college websites. Which sometimes leads to frustration.

Yes, much of this information can be found, given enough time, interest, and strength in search skills for a wide variety of websites. Except for that ‘engaged learners’ bit — the Pew Foundation gathers that information and the colleges, for the most part, don’t share the results.

Since we still have to perform a lot of our own research it would be handy if much of the basic information were readily available in a clear, easy to compare format.

Apparently the White House thinks so, too, and so does the New York Times, which endorsed the government’s proposal in today’s editorial:  What College Students Need to Know.

Congress has taken some steps to mandate greater transparency from colleges. The 1990 Student Right to Know Act, for example, required colleges and universities that receive federal aid to disclose graduation rates. And the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act required schools to offer a way for consumers to determine actual costs after student aid is taken into account.

But many colleges have done a poor job of complying with federal disclosure rules, and much of the available information is not in one place. The administration’s new efforts would enforce reporting requirements and provide some new tools.

I wrote about one of those tools,  the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau‘s proposed Know Before You Owe worksheet, here.

College Value Profile. Click to enlarge.

The other tool the editorial endorses is the Department of Education’s proposed College Scorecard, which can be read about here. You can download a pdf of the scorecard from that link; here’s a quick screenshot.

Also reported today, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is more disclosure on Virginia colleges and the jobs their graduates find. Take a look at Taking Some of the Guesswork out of the Value of College Question, written by Jeff Selingo.

Of course, not all colleges or majors are created equal. And it’s nearly impossible for consumers to get any information about how much a graduate in a specific major from a particular university earns. That’s probably one of the best measures of the return on investment in higher education, but, as with so many other tools that would allow consumers to make bottom-line comparisons, colleges are loath to share such information. In the absence of data, it’s easier for colleges to sell the dream of higher education at any cost.

Like politicians elsewhere, Virginia lawmakers have heard such complaints from parents and decided to do something about it. Over the last two years, the state legislature has passed two bills that, beginning this spring, will give families access to a key component in answering the value-of-college question: median salaries for the graduates of hundreds of academic programs across every public institution and some private colleges in the state.

The public database, which is expected in April, will allow students and parents to look at potential earnings over a six-year period in several ways. They can look at a specific program to see median earnings by type of degree (a certificate vs. a two-year degree in information technology, for instance) or across institutions (an English degree at James Madison University vs. the same degree at George Mason University), or majors across a campus.

Read the full article for some important caveats and for Mr. Selingo’s prediction that other states will see the need to follow Virginia’s lead.

For Mod Squad Pete, Julie, and Linc to create their own post-college opportunities, one of their best shots is to be highly engaged students in college. They can control that part of the equation. They should be able to access information on the pieces of the equation they cannot control, such as:

  • how will a college support their efforts both for learning and for career planning,
  • will it be possible to graduate in four years, given course and pre-req schedules,
  • where does higher tuition go — into the classroom, another luxury dorm, or the Chancellor’s paycheck,
  • how many classes are taught by full professors, how many by grad students, and how many by adjunct,
  • and — given the recent news about Claremont-McKenna — how honest the college is with any of this data?

I’d love to get the basic info either of these proposed reports offers. That would free up time to dig deeper on some of our other questions.

Do you think these reports would help? Please let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Why so much concern about making mistakes on the FAFSA?

Read almost any college or financial aid related blog during the winter and you’ll see at least one post warning against making a mistake on the FAFSA. Including me; I’ve written about it a couple of times:

Why the big deal about not messing this up?

1. The amount of money at risk is substantial. The FAFSA computes your Expected Family Contribution [EFC], which the colleges use to compute any financial aid, from grants to work-study, to determining how much of a loan could be subsidized vs. unsubsidized. Accidentally include a $450,000 family home in your assets? The parents’ total unprotected assets x 5.64% are included in your ability to pay. There’s a potential $25k mistake.

2.  It’s difficult (impossible?) to know if you’ve made a mistake. My friend, Kim, called a couple of weeks ago as she worked her way through the form and made this point:  how would you know? The math and algorithms involved are complicated, we’ve been led to expect a higher EFC than we’d like to pay, and how could you check it if you did think it was wrong?

Brent Hunsberger, writing about the FAFSA for The Oregonian, says:

“The questions are deceptively simple,” Wagar says. Yet its instructions and behind-the-scenes calculations are as dense as its acronym. Mistakes can costs you hundreds, even thousands of dollars in aid each year. Once the form’s submitted, Wagar added, there’s no easy way to know you made a mistake on it.
“Even lawyers, Ph.D.s, they screw it up,” said Paula Bishop, a certified public accountant in Bellevue, Wash., who specializes in college planning. “It’s a shame, because some don’t go to college because of it.”

The advice he quoted from financial aid consultants:  Pay attention.

The advice I received from Mod Squad Dad when I thought it was done and wanted to (nay, ached to) submit it late one night:  sleep on it and check it again in the morning.

Good luck on the FAFSA. I’m off to plug real 2011 numbers into my filed-early-with-estimates CollegeBoard Profile.

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5 things I learned when I completed the FAFSA

No matter how much you may read about how to complete online applications — whether the Common App, the CSS Profile, the FAFSA, or a college-specific application — they still require hands-on learning. You need to jump in and start working through them to understand how to complete them.

I recently filed the FAFSA for the first time. I didn’t submit it as early as I wished, but the form is now done. [Let’s ignore the tweet I happened to see January 1st from someone who filed that day.]

Here are a few things I learned by doing…

1.  Timing is everything. There would be far fewer questions about how to complete the FAFSA if it were due April 20, instead of ASAP after it becomes  available online January 1. We would simply take a look at our recently filed tax forms, pull the numbers needed, and click submit. The problem is that federal money is allocated by the colleges on a first-come, first-serve basis, so filing earlier is better. Some states set a deadline of late February. We were able to get a draft 1040 worked up for the numbers we needed; we’ll validate the FAFSA after we sign our tax return.

2.  Know your assets. Pension plan? Primary residence? College savings plan? You need to know which of your assets count and which don’t. The FAFSA treats assets differently than the CollegeBoard Profile does. Double-check FAFSA  help.

Investments do not include the home you (and if married, your spouse) live in; cash, savings and checking accounts; the value of life insurance and retirement plans (401[k] plans, pension funds, annuities, non-education IRAs, Keogh plans, etc.).

3.  Careful which buttons you push. Every time I saw these two buttons:  “Clear all data” and “Start over” on the online form, I imagined the nightmare clicking either of those buttons would produce.

2012-13 Fafsa screenshot

2012-13 Fafsa screenshot

4.  Instant feedback is helpful. As soon as the application is submitted, presents a confirmation for printing. That confirmation provides your confirmation number, graduation and retention rates for the colleges you’ve selected, and an estimated Expected Family Contribution, based upon the numbers submitted. Sure, it’s only an estimate, but it’s a step taken toward figuring out college costs.

5.  It’s not over yet. Of course. There’s always another step.

  • We should receive an email, after our taxes are filed, to remind us to link up taxes and FAFSA.
  • Two days after submitting the application, Mod Squad Pete received his Student Aid Report.
  • That same day he received an update request for the Profile detailing the long list of items they need to receive by March 1, including the signed 1040, all schedules, all 1099s, etc. Our final 1099 is supposed to be mailed mid-February…

Yes, the deadlines and complications continue.

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