FOR HOUSEHOLDS with college-bound students, January will seem more like the hectic days leading up to April 15, with parents scrambling to get their tax and income information together as they begin the financial aid process.
Jan. 1 is the first day that families can submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the form that's used to determine what federal aid a college student will receive for the coming academic year. States and many private schools also use the FAFSA for dishing out aid.
Even if students and their parents don't think they will be eligible for aid, they should fill out the form, experts said. Financial aid formulas are complicated, and it's difficult for families to know ahead of time whether they will qualify.
For example, families with income of $100,000 and a child heading to a pricier private school may qualify for some aid, as well as those with incomes of $200,000 and a couple of children in college, said Ron Shunk, financial aid director at Hood College in Frederick.
Half of undergraduates - or 8 million students - in the 1999-2000 academic year failed to apply for aid. As many as 850,000 of those would have been eligible for a Pell Grant that's designed to help low- to moderate-income students, according to a recently released survey by the American Council on Education.
And with the price of college rising, families can use as much help as they can get. Tuition, fees, room and board at a four-year public institution this year averaged $11,354, a 7.8 percent increase over last year, according to the College Board. At a private four-year school, the price tag was $27,516, a 5.6 percent increase.
"The first thing is not to get overwhelmed," said Ellen Frishberg, director of student financial services for the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "A lot of Americans have a fear of forms."
The next step is to check out the deadlines, because meeting them is critical. The federal government will process FAFSA forms submitted for the 2005- 2006 academic year until June 30, 2006, but schools and states have their own deadlines for awarding aid that are much earlier than that.
In Maryland, for example, the form must be postmarked by March 1, 2005, if residents want to apply for state aid. "They are unwavering in that," Shunk said.
Schools may require the FAFSA to be sent in as early as late January or mid-February. (Hundreds of private schools, however, use the more detailed CSS Profile form, so families need to find out what forms their prospective school needs.)
Some school deadlines aren't rigid, although families might get less aid if they file late.
"Don't let the fact that filling out the FAFSA is a daunting task get in the way of starting early. The procrastinator does lose out in the process," said Mark Brenner, president of College Loan Corp., a student loan provider based in San Diego. "It's the institutional aid that goes most quickly."
Once you know the deadlines, get organized. Collect bank statements, investment records, W-2 forms and other financial documents. It's helpful to have 2004 federal tax returns because a lot of the information requested on the FAFSA is on the tax form.
But with some deadlines so early, parents sometimes must file the FAFSA before they have had time to prepare their tax returns. If you submit the FAFSA before filing taxes, you can reconstruct your income using the last paycheck stub for the year or last year's tax return, experts said.
"You don't need to use the exact figure from the 1040. It's a good idea to be as close as possible. ... You will have an opportunity to correct errors later," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid, an online source for financial aid information.
You can submit a paper FAFSA form, but experts advise filling out the form online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. The computer system is likely to flag errors so families can immediately correct mistakes, and online forms can be processed faster. By the time a paper form is returned to parents and students for corrections and sent back in, it's possible the family might miss a crucial deadline.
The FAFSA and its worksheet can be confusing for those new to the terminology. Got questions? You can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). Staffers will even be available to answer questions Jan. 1 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
(For Marylanders, there's more help. On Jan. 30, a dozen schools around the state will have experts on hand to help parents and students fill out the FAFSA form. For locations, call 1-866-Go-2-Goal, or 1-866- 462-4625.)
While it's important to meet deadlines, rushing can cause errors. "It slows the process down. Read carefully," Shunk said.
Some of the common mistakes families make are putting in the wrong Social Security numbers, leaving lines blank or failing to sign the form, experts said. Parents frequently will mistakenly list their gross income, instead of adjusted gross income, which makes their income look higher and can reduce the amount of aid they receive, Kantrowitz said.
If more information is needed, schools will sometimes contact the student by e-mail, so parents need to check with their child to make sure that an e-mail message hasn't been overlooked, Frishberg said.
The first word of the FAFSA is "Free," and financial aid directors remind parents that they don't have to pay to have the form filled out. Some companies charge $65 to $650 to fill out a FAFSA form, with those charging the higher fees typically also promising to help families secure more aid, Frishberg said.
But Frishberg warned that it's questionable whether these consultants can help get more aid than if the parents filled out the forms themselves. And financial aid directors said some groups that charge a fee failed to file on time or made errors.
Kantrowitz's Web site at www.finaid.com also offers free advice on maximizing your aid eligibility and common errors to avoid in filling out the FAFSA.
For parents and students who do fill out the forms themselves, there is some good news, too. It gets easier the next time, aid directors say.
To suggest a topic, contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at eileen.ambrose @baltsun.com.