NEW YORK -- Students in need of federal financial aid, for the current school year or for a trade school, cooled their heels in January. Applications were held up for 18 days during the most recent government shutdown.
Your application -- called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) -- discloses your income and assets. Normally, the FAFSAs are processed in two to three weeks.
But the shutdown stopped the show for some 120,000 to 140,000 applicants, even though some work went on. Any student applying at the last minute had to scramble for money in order to be accepted for class.
That particular backlog has been cleared up, an Education Department spokesman says.
But now there's a new one -- for 450,000 students applying for the school year starting next September.
In this case, it's not just the shutdown that's holding up your FAFSA. It's also budget politics.
Congress should have passed a budget last fall, setting the size of the Pell Grant for 1996-1997 (Pells are the prime grant for lower-income students). You've probably read plenty about that mess.
In the continuing resolution passed Jan. 26, Congress finally set the maximum Pell: It's $2,440, which is $100 higher than last year. It will take about five days to reprogram the Education Department's computers. Then processing can resume.
Based on your FAFSA, the government creates a personal Student Aid Report. The schools use that report to calculate how much federal aid you're entitled to.
The slowdown shouldn't affect entering students who will hear from the schools this spring. But students who hoped for early admission may be delayed.
One lucky group of students wasn't caught up in the budget mess. They're people applying to private colleges and universities, using a new questionnaire called the Financial Aid Profile.
This profile includes -- for the first time -- all of the government's FAFSA disclosures, plus additional data on your family's finances.
It's processed by the College Scholarship Service, which analyzes your financial need and reports the results to the colleges to which you've applied. It never passes through government hands.
You still have to file a FAFSA to get federal aid. But it's a formality. Thanks to the new profile, the colleges can see for themselves about how much aid you'll qualify for.
Speedy processing helps students in several ways. For example, if you apply to a school for early acceptance, you can be told right away what your aid package is likely to be.
Other applicants also can be accepted earlier -- maybe in February or March -- and get a prompt offer of financial aid.
The new Profile system will especially help students who apply at the last minute, says Bill Stanford, director of financial aid at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. The profile gets data to the colleges faster, so you're less likely to miss the deadline.
The Financial Aid Profile differs from the federal FAFSA in one important way.
The government's form ignores some major family assets, like the value of your home, certain annuities and retirement plans.
If your parents are divorced, the FAFSA counts only the income of the parent you live with. You look poorer on paper than you really are, which may qualify you for additional federal aid.
State colleges and universities generally take the FAFSA at face value. That's one reason that so many middle- and upper-middle-class students are now choosing them. The kids get a break on student aid, as well as on tuition costs.
The private colleges, however, are spending their own money, not the taxpayers'. So they're more cautious about giving aid to students who could pay more themselves.
They require you to fill in an extra form, disclosing the income and assets that the FAFSA overlooks.
In the past, each college had its own financial aid form. The College Scholarship Service hopes the schools will soon use the profile alone. That would cut down on your paperwork.
The new system costs a bit more (although fees can be waived for low-income students). You pay $5 to request the profile (see your high school guidance counselor or call the CSS at 609-771-7735), $14.50 for each school where the data will be sent and $5.50 for a data-confirmation report.
In all, you'd pay $25.50 more than last year, if you're applying to five schools.
By the way, always get the confirmation report. It shows whether any mistakes were made, and a mistake might cost you money.
You can write to Jane Bryant Quinn at: Newsweek, 444 Madison Ave., 18th floor, New York, N.Y. 10022.